It’s the question that has crossed the mind of every aspiring cyclist or triathlete, why is cycling so expensive? You may have had a budget in your head of £100 (or regional equivalent) for your bike, but it seems even that is unlikely to leave you walking away with a bike. Let alone a road bike. That’s before you even get to the clothing and accessories.
Why is cycling so expensive? Is the whole industry a rip off? In this article we’re going on a deep dive into the cycling industry to find out. We’re going to be focusing on road cycling as this is the area I’m mot familiar with. The majority of the points here apply to off road as well.
Why Shouldn’t I Buy a £100 bike?
These bikes are what I have seen fondly referred to as “bike shaped objects” by mechanics. This may come across as snobbery, but there’s logic here.
These bikes are designed to be taken out for a short ride on flat terrain a couple of times a year. The quintessential family bike ride. They’re heavy, sluggish and will break very easily. When it does break, you will probably pay 30-40% of the value of the bike to fix it. The tyres will puncture easily, the chain will probably fall off without much encouragement, and you’ll struggle to get spare parts.
What Should I Buy Instead?
In contrast, let’s look at the classic starting bike, the Specialized Allez. Like many cyclists, I started out on one of these dream machines. Other brands are available.
So, what does this bike offer which our bargain basement bike doesn’t?
For many cyclists, a lighter bike is a better bike. If you get passed on the hills by those on much lighter bikes, this is very demoralising as you feel powerless. An entry level road bike like an Allez could be twice as light as a cheap bike. It still isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of road cycling, but it’s a big step up.
I’m probably not exaggerating by much when I estimate that this bike will last 100 times longer than a cheap bike. I rode mine for the best part of 15,000 miles without major issue. Yes I needed to replace some parts, but when you consider you’re lucky to get 100 miles out of a cheap bike without needing to take it to a mechanic, the difference in longevity is remarkable. It’s actually cheaper to pay more up front in the long run.
The Specialized pictured above uses a Shimano Sora groupset. This refers to the brakes, gears, shifters, chain e.t.c.
When you shift a gear on this bike, it will jump to the new gear less than a second. When you shift a gear on a bike shaped object, it will make a slow, clunky shift. If you’re lucky it’ll end up in the gear you wanted to without jumping around. If you’re not changing gear much this doesn’t matter. But if you’re on rolling terrain and want to use your gears to make life easier, this can be frustrating.
In addition, when you turn a corner, the steering will feel silky smooth for a long time. Meanwhile, a cheaper bike’s bearings will wear quickly. Especially when it gets wet.
Once you’ve been riding for a year or two, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some upgrades for your bike. This could be more gears, better brakes or a new saddle. These upgrades are designed to fit traditional road bikes. Cheaper bikes often have non standard fixtures, as they don’t expect to be upgraded.
When you can be looking at £80 for a comfortable saddle, you will very quickly get to the place where you’re almost spending as much on single components as you did on a cheap bike.
If you buy a cheap bike and get bitten by the cycling bug, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether you ride with friends who leave you for dust, or it breaks down yet again at the furthest point from home and you need to call for a pick up; you’ll end up having to sell it for a fraction of what you paid for it, and buying a more expensive bike anyway.
So, where does my money go?
The Specialized Allez starts at £650, which is a lot of money to spend on a bike. So where does the money go? And why would someone look to spend £5000 on a bike?
Quality of Materials
The biggest factor which makes cycling expensive is the materials used in manufacture of the parts. If you want a cheap steel frame, you can get this for a song. However, it will be very heavy. There are Chinese factories which manufacture counterfeit bikes, which they sell on for a fraction of the cost. However, there’s a good chance these will break, potentially injuring you in the process.
When looking to purchase something it can be cheap and light. Or strong and cheap. Most bikes need to be both light and strong, but this doesn’t come cheap. For a bike to be able to withstand thousands of miles on the road without damage the materials have to be carefully chosen. They also have to be treated in a specific way to ensure performance and safety.
This extends beyond the frame materials to everything on the bike. Wheels are notoriously expensive because they have to both be incredibly light, and withstand huge forces from hitting potholes without buckling. There will always be a cheaper option out there, but this will come with a penalty to performance and longevity.
Research and Development
If you want to create the lightest and fastest bike on the market, this involves a considerable amount of research and development. This involves paying designers and engineers to build prototypes, time spent in a wind tunnel, stress tests on the frame itself, and dozens of other steps between concept and the bike appearing for sale at your local bike shop. These costs are passed onto the consumer when they purchase the bike, to help the bike manufacturer stay in business. And help them keep pushing the boundaries.
Pro Team Sponsorship
A bike sponsor will provide a World Tour team with hundreds of bikes over the course of a year. When you consider many manufacturers will sponsor multiple teams, you’re looking at companies spending hundreds of thousands over the course of a year to support professional teams. They hope to recoup the cost by inspiring customers to buy their bikes via the team. If you think recreational cycling is expensive, wait until you see the costs involved with running a professional team!
Running of the Business
Smaller bike manufacturers will only really make money from selling frames. The sale of bikes cover everything from the receptionist’s salary to the van they use for deliveries. If companies did not make a profit from each sale, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business, offer warranties or provide any customer service. While some products provide manufacturers and retailers with a large profit margin, bike frames are not one of them, and the whole industry relies on bike manufacturers staying in business.
But What About Expensive Cycling Clothing? Some Kit Costs As Much as Cheap Bikes
It’s true that you can get a cheap bike for the cost of some waterproof jackets, but it all comes back to performance. When cycling you build up a huge amount of heat. When you cover yourself with what is essentially a plastic bag, this traps the heat and causes the rider to overheat. You may keep the rain off you with cheap jackets, but you’ll get soaked with sweat, losing a lot of sodium in the process which hurts your performance in itself. A high end waterproof jacket will be far more breathable, while still keeping you dry.
Expensive cycling jerseys may be incredibly lightweight for summer riding, aerodynamic for use in time trials, or windproof for riding in poor weather. However, they may also be expensive simply for the sake of fashion. Where bikes themselves are all about performance, clothing is far more susceptible to trends, and you can get away with spending a bit less here. Cheaper kit will be heavier, not as breathable and won’t fit as nicely, but this will have far less of an effect on your ride than a bike which is constantly breaking.
Do I Need to Spend a Lot on a Helmet?
All of the helmets for sale will meet basic safety standards, so you don’t need to spend a lot on a helmet to keep you or a loved one safe. Money spent on an expensive cycling helmet can make it more aerodynamic (faster), lighter and more breathable. Cheaper helmets will feel like a block of polystyrene on your head, where you won’t notice you’re wearing a more expensive one. There are safety systems such as MIPS available on some models, which is suggested to improve safety for a small price increase.
Fit is more important than cost when it comes to safety. You shouldn’t be able to fit more than two fingers under the chin strap, and it shouldn’t be too tight, or too loose on your head.
Manufacturers Will Charge What People are Willing to Pay
This is true in many industries, but is especially true in cycling. Many people will walk into a bike shop, ask for the latest bike, and price won’t even be discussed. They might not even look at the total. Manufacturers will push the very limit of what current technology permits, because they know someone will buy it and justify the investment in developing the product. It will also win professional races, building their brand.
The good news is that these customers help keep manufacturers in business, which allows them to keep the price down on their entry level bikes. Top end bikes will rarely be discounted in a meaningful way, but many components and accessories will be discounted within a matter of months following their release.
There are many factors which make cycling expensive, but you don’t have to remortgage your house to get started. A budget of £1000 will get you up and running with a setup that lasts years, and prove to be more economical than going for the cheapest possible option.
Hopefully by the time you’re reading this your training has gone well, you’re excited, and feel nervous, yet unstoppable. However, a few mistakes on your triathlon race day can really put a spanner in the works. Maybe even result in your failing to finish. All of that fitness isn’t much use if you can’t apply it onto the course, so we’re going to walk you through the confusing and stressful world of race preparation. This will reduce stress and confusion on the morning itself.
It’s worth clarifying that every race has its quirks and differences. There are races which start at 7PM, are pool swims, end with a run up a mountain, mix up the disciplines and more. Don’t see this as being a guide to your race specifically as it can’t cover all possibilities, Make sure you always read the pre race information on the organiser’s website. Don’t make assumptions that what you read here will happen on the day.
Two Days Before
This is the best day to organise your kit. As most triathlon race days are Sundays, by packing your kit on the Friday is a good idea. Not only to make it a less stressful experience, you make it more likely you’ll remember something you forgot to pack. This also gives you time to replace anything missing/broken.
Here’s a recommended packing list:
Second swim cap/neoprene cap (for cold swims)
Tools for bike (tyre levers, spare tube (unless running tubeless), multi-tool)
Photo ID (for registration, normally a passport/driving license)
Plus anything that you specifically may want to take
Use this opportunity to read (or re-read) the athlete guide for your event.
The Day Before
Unless you race is very local, I recommend travelling up the night before. A traffic jam, cancelled train, or dead battery could be the end of your triathlon race day before it’s even begun.
List of Jobs
Rebuild bike and take it for a very short ride to check everything is working ok
Organise nutrition, attach it to bike/place it in clothing where applicable
Drive the bike course (if you own a car)
Walk to the swim start to get an idea of the swim course
Register, if possible
Eat a nutritious, easily digestible meal
Get an early night
Wake up at least 2 hours before your start time, allowing more time if the venue is further away. You want to arrive with at least an hour between arriving at the venue and your start time. There are a lot of things that can go wrong during your triathlon race day. Give yourself as much time to deal with these as you can.
You’ll probably want breakfast before you leave for your race, but hotels can make this difficult, unless you are staying at a big hotel close to a big race, who will often put an early breakfast on. Breakfast is a personal choice, but I’ve had more success with gastrointestinal issues since I cut down on the lactose on race morning. We’re all lactose intolerant to a greater or lesser extent, and the emotions of race day combined with the exertion of racing can cause that big bowl of porridge to sit very heavy on the stomach, or even make a reappearance in the swim if you’re very unlucky.
This is also a good time to put your trisuit, or whatever you’re wearing for the swim on. Races don’t normally have a dedicated changing area, and I doubt you want to get changed in a portaloo.
Leave your accommodation with plenty of time to make it to the start. It’s better to be sat around in your wetsuit for another 15 minutes than to miss your start because you hit the snooze button.
If you haven’t registered yet, that should be your first port of call. You should receive the following, unless they arrived via post in the preceding days:
Race number stickers
Contents may vary from race to race
Your timing chip will normally be in the form of a plastic chip on a band with a velcro closure system. This is placed on your left leg, to prevent it from interfering with the bike. Make sure you do not put this over the top of your wetsuit as not only does this increase the chances of it getting knocked off in the water, it also makes it a pain to get your wetsuit off.
The wristband allows you access into transition and will normally include your race number so marshals can check it matches the number on your bike.
Your race number usually needs to be placed on your back when cycling and your front when running. A race belt is the best solution and prevents you messing around with safety pins through your expensive tri suit.
Your race stickers belong on your bike and your helmet, and are used to identify you both on course and in race photos afterwards. They are also used to identify your bike in transition when the marshal will cross reference it with your wristband, to stop someone walking off with your pride and joy.
Setting up Transition
Your next port of call will be heading to transition where you will rack your bike, unless you did so the evening before. On your way into transition officials will check your bike’s brakes work and that you have bar plugs on your dropped handle bars, if applicable.
Some races have stickers denoting your race number on the racking, others it is a free for all. If you have the choice, rack your bike near the end of a rack to make it easier to find. Another benefit to getting there early!
To start with place your bike on the rack, which normally takes the form of a scaffolding tube. The jury is out on which way it should face, just make sure you have a plan for removing it swiftly without clouting your fellow competitors. Use this opportunity to mark sure it’s in an appropriate gear. If the bike course starts with a hill, don’t leave it in the big ring.
Next up you need to place the following items on/in front of your bike
Cycling shoes (if not attached to bike)
Anything else you’ll need on the bike/run
Many athletes place their race number over the handle/aero bars with their race belt underneath so they have a simple system to work through, and prevent the brain fog. After 9 years of triathlon I was so stressed after the swim I forgot my race number on once. It helps to lay things out in an order which makes it hard to get things wrong.
I like to place a small, coloured towel in front of my transition area. This way when I’m disorientated after the swim I can find my bike easily.
Once your transition area is setup, it’s time to think about using the toilet. I don’t think I’ve ever had a triathlon race day without a nervous wee. It may be the first of many visits between now and the start. Arriving at the start line absolutely desperate for the toilet does not set you up for success!
After your comfort stop, it’s time to walk the transition area. Start by finding where you’ll enter after the swim, and head over there. Picture yourself coming out of the swim. Where is your bike? Are there any landmarks you can aim for such as a tree or catering truck? After you get to your bike, which way do you run with your bike towards the start of the bike course? Repeat this for the bike in and the run out, so you can map it out in your mind, and reduce the chances of you losing time as you run the wrong way.
Once your transition area is ready, it’s time to look at the details if you have time, such as your tyre pressures. It’s best you stick with what you used in training as we don’t encourage you to try anything new on your triathlon race day, but if rain is forecast for the bike section, and you normally run your tyres at a very high pressure, it’s probably worth lowering them slightly to give you more grip in the corners. Try not to obsessively check your pressures, as every time you open the valve there’s a small chance of snapping it, so be careful here.
Next up we need to get our wetsuit on. Leave plenty of time for this if you are new to the sport, as it can be very time consuming, and you don’t want to be panicking that you’ll miss the start. You can find a guide on how to put your wetsuit on here: Choosing a Triathlon Wetsuit
Just make sure you ask someone else to do your suit up for you, as the last thing you want is for your zipper to break in your hands on race morning.
What happens next depends largely on the kind of swim start bring used on your triathlon race day.
Deep Water Start
This involves lowering yourself into the water and swimming over to the starting area, which is normally two buoys or some kayaks. You will then wait for the starting horn/klaxon to go, after which the large group of swimmers will all start at the same time. If you are a weaker swimmer, I STRONGLY suggest you place yourself at the back or the sides of the group. Don’t place yourself in the middle or front of the group, this will only result in you getting pushed underwater by other swimmers. If you are especially nervous, after the klaxon sounds, count to three in your head before starting your swim.
Self Seeded Rolling Start
Increasingly popular in the age of Covid 19, these swim starts involve swimmers forming a long line based on their ability. This is normally marked with small signs denoting predicted swim times, to help ensure swimmers start in the right area. The start here is much less pronounced than deep water starts as the first swimmer enters the water on the signal of the race director, but the adrenaline will still be pumping as you slowly shuffle your way towards the water’s edge.
These are very rare, but it’s worth covering them nonetheless. This involves a small group of athletes lined up on a beach with a short run into the water. The athletes will wait for a starting klaxon which signals the start of the event, and a very technical, potentially dangerous entry into the water.
When the first participants reach the shoreline they’ll be able to run a short distance, before it becomes too deep to run normally. From here many athletes will run and swing their legs our to the side to avoid the waves until the water gets too deep. At this point athletes will do one of two things, they will start with a slightly awkward front crawl in water that’s too shallow, or they’ll break into a dolphin kick, potentially with butterfly arms to match if they are proficient. This is the most effective way to move your body through shallow water, and is the choice of top swimmers. Once you are in deep water, it’s full steam ahead to the closest buoy.
This is the start you are least likely to encounter as an athlete, I am yet to see it used outside of a pro race, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. You will line up on the edge of a pontoon ready to dive in. Athletes will be told to take their marks, before a horn sounds signifying the start. I have participated in races where I started holding onto the pontoon used by the pros, waiting for the signal to let go and start my swim.
In the Water
If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re new to open water swimming, and it will be the most intimidating part of your triathlon race day. You will want to stay clear of other swimmers where you can, allowing you to focus on your own race without worrying about swimming close to others. However, you also need to be aware of slower swimmers you may be about to swim into, so you can’t afford to swim in your own little world without the risk of injury or going very off course.
You may be very new or unfamiliar with freestyle (front crawl), and after a matter of minutes or seconds, you may feel panicked and need to revert to breaststroke. This is fine, you can breaststroke your way around the entire course if you need to. You can also hold onto a kayak for a rest if you want, although it’s best to ask the kayaker where the best place to hold onto is, as you don’t want to capsize them. Not only is this unpleasant for all involved, this affects the level of safety cover they can provide, and may distract from a swimmer in trouble.
Your primary goal is to make it to the first buoy, which you should have scouted out at the start of the race, and which everyone else will be heading towards. This does create a pinch point however, as everyone wants the best (closest) line to the buoy. If you are surrounded by other swimmers, it may be more beneficial to add an extra 5M onto your swim by going wide rather than swimming close to the buoy itself and risking a kick or being swum over.
You will then swim to the next buoy, then the next, and so on until you reach the swim exit. If you’re unsure which direction you should be swimming in, take a moment to do a spot of breaststroke to get your bearings rather than carrying on regardless, as this can result in your swimming way off course. I will normally sight by lifting my eyes out of the water before turning my head to breathe every 20-30 seconds to make sure I’m still on course, but this is an advanced technique, so do whatever makes you feel comfortable.
When you reach the swim exit, normally indicated by an inflatable arch, it’s time to stand up. This can be tricky if the ground is rocky, slimy or deep mud underfoot. Don’t rush this, and take your time to get out of the water, there will often be volunteers to help you.
Once you are out of the water you can either run to transition if you’re feeling ok and want to be competitive, or you can take it at more of a walk if you feel very disorientated coming out of the water. Better to take it slower and make it to T1 than to rush, fall over and potentially injure yourself.
The run to T1 can be long and uphill, so don’t let the adrenaline get the better of you and shred your legs before you even get on your bike. If you can, now is a good time to remove your swim hat and your goggles. I like to unzip my wetsuit and roll it down to my waist so that when I get to my bike I only have to remove the legs.
Short for transition 1, this is where you change out of your swimming gear and into your bike gear. Most athletes will be wearing tri suits on a triathlon race day, which allows them to wear the same one piece suit throughout the race, and simply add the required elements for each sport. For cycling this will be your helmet, race belt, shoes and anything else you wish to wear on the bike.
In midsummer, you’re unlikely to want to wear anything else, but in spring or autumn races it can pay to have an extra layer on standby in transition in case you need it. This could be a cycling jersey, gilet, waterproof jacket or anything else you feel would offer you desired insulation. Hypothermia is no fun and will likely result in a DNF, so take the time to dress appropriately instead of rushing your transition to save a few seconds.
Next up is the question of shoes. You can wear trainers on the bike and trainers for the run which is completely fine, or you can wear special cycling shoes. If you have not trained extensively with these, do not try them for the first time on race day! Cycling shoes have a very stiff sole and clip into the pedals using a cleat (piece of plastic/metal) on the bottom of the shoes which makes them cumbersome to run in. To counter this, many athletes will leave their shoes already clipped into the bike, and mount their bike by jumping onto it while pushing it.
This is known as the flying mount, and is a very high risk manoeuvre. Getting it wrong can be incredibly painful (especially for the gents) and potentially the end of your race if you fall hard enough or damage your bike. I recommend first timers affix their shoes next to their rack and run in the shoes awkwardly. The time lost will be pretty negligible over the course of the whole race, and most transition areas are on grass which makes it less ungainly.
After you exit transition you will approach the mount line. This denotes the point from which you can ride your bike. If you are mounting your bike in the traditional fashion, pull over to the left to mount your bike. Don’t stop in the middle of the race course to slowly mount your bike as you’ll block the course.
There are two main kinds of bike course, closed road and open road. Most organisers can’t close a road for the sake of a triathlon race day, so you will share the road with traffic. There will most likely be points where you do not have priority or come across traffic signals, and it’s imperative that you give way in these situations. Not only is it a very bad look for the race organiser and the sport in general, it’s dangerous and will result in you being disqualified by the marshal which will inevitably be on that junction.
Each race has their own drafting rules which must be followed. Drafting is the act of riding behind another cyclist to use their slipstream as a competitive advantage. Many races will have different rules regarding this, make sure you familiarise yourself with them. Don’t get sucked into drafting because everyone else is, or you could find yourself landed with a penalty. If you are overtaken by a faster athlete, it’s your job to fall back outside the drafting zone.
The bike will be the first time during your triathlon race day that many of you will feel comfortable. Don’t make the mistake of pushing hard on fresh legs. You may feel you’re a third of the way through after finishing the swim, but the reality is that you probably still have at least three quarters of the race ahead of you.
While on the bike route, it’s important that you stay to whichever side of the route you are racing on, unless overtaking. This not only means faster athletes can pass you, but it also means you’ll be able to pass athletes who are slower than you without issue. Whenever you are riding, always look over your shoulder before overtaking. You never know if another cyclist or car could be in that space, or about to move into it. If in doubt, hang back until it’s safe to take the move.
There will be hills on the course, and pacing these will make a huge difference to our bike split. If you are riding on the flats at a heart rate of 140BPM, then you sprint up a hill at 170BPM, that will be a huge effort and take several minutes to overcome. Make too many of these big efforts on the hills and you’ll end up exhausted before you start the run. Instead, it’s smarter to use your gears to ride up them with the minimum effort required to get over the hill. This will still increase your heart rate, but allow you to get straight back to racing once you hit the bottom of the descent. Those who push too hard will lose time on the other end.
If your race is going to take you over the 90 minute mark, you’ll want something to eat on the bike. This is to replace the energy stores depleted from racing. This can take whatever form you wish, but energy gels are popular for being a small to carry, calorie intensive solution. They are easy to digest in most cases, but can sit on some athlete’s stomachs, so make sure you try these before the big day.
Don’t take any risks in the corners unless you know your tyres well, and consider the rest of the race when determining your pacing strategy. Are you a confident runner who can pull a fast run leg out of the bag even on tired legs? Or are you dreading the run, unsure if you’ll be able to finish? These will help determine your pacing strategy, as will your overall goals. Just don’t let your ego get in the way, those around you may be making mistakes, so don’t feel you need to follow them.
As you approach the end of the bike, it’s time to think about your dismount. There will be a dismount line in the same manner as the mount line, which both your feet must touch before you cross. Failure to do so would result in a penalty. For most athletes, this will be a case of pulling over a few feet from the line, dismounting as normal and running to your rack.
Once you locate your racking you can return your bike and remove your helmet. If you are still wearing cycling shoes you’ll need to remove these and replace with running shoes. Elastic laces are a must have here, they generally cost under £10 and save you a lot of time, especially if your hands are slightly cold following the bike.
Once your shoes are on, you can put a running cap/visor on if you wish, then make your way towards the start of the run course which should be marked “run out”.
Now it’s a footrace to the finish line, and the simplest of disciplines in many ways, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other until you reach the finish line.
However, there’s a difference between a run, and a run at the end of a triathlon, as you’re about to find out. The chances are your legs will feel a bit wooden and your stride length may be shorter after the bike. Hopefully this will pass in time if you’ve done enough brick sessions in your training, but if running isn’t your strong suite anyway, it could be a slog to the finish line.
Along the way there will probably be at least one chance to take on fluids, maybe even some snacks at some races. Many athletes will walk these sections, allowing them a short break as well as a chance to eat/drink in more comfort. If it’s an especially hot day, you can use this as an opportunity to cool yourself by dousing yourself with water.
Many run courses will have distance markers which dictate how far you are into the course. This may not align with your GPS watch, but if in doubt you should listen to the markers on course. GPS data gets confused if lots of watches are in close proximity, and the course will have been measured manually with a wheel, so is more likely to be accurate.
When they going gets tough, make sure you’re standing upright, looking ahead, and picking your feet up. If you have to walk, you have to walk, and there’s no shame in this. You’re still doing better than everyone sat at home.
The Finish Line
At smaller events this could be a collection of cones. At larger events it will be a big showpiece which funnels you into a finishing area with an announcer.
After you cross the line you will be presented with a medal, and hopefully some water/snacks to help you refuel. You will need to remove the timing chip around your ankle and return it to avoid being charged for a replacement.
At larger events you may be taken into a marquee with T-shirts, massage, food and benches to help you recover. At smaller events you’ll simply be able to walk out and back to your transition area. Here you will collect your bike and make your way home with a medal round your chest and heart full of pride. Congratulations for getting fit enough, and handling the pressures of a triathlon race day to achieve your goal. You may have noticed we used the phrase triathlon race day rather than triathlon. That’s because we believe triathlon is a lifestyle, not a single day. We hope you’ll continue to swim, bike and run in some capacity.
If this has inspired you to have a go at a triathlon, check out findarace.com where you can find listings for most triathlons in the UK.
As with everything in life, what once raised our pulse and dominated our every thought becomes slowly mundane. When we started out in triathlon we were all smitten with the bike tech, wetsuits, different events and all the toys we never knew we needed. We completed our first race, got faster quickly, raced progressively longer distances, until a day came when we no longer jumped out of bed to train every morning. How can we fall back in love with triathlon?
It could be that your performance hit a plateau, you picked up an injury, or you achieved everything you wanted to. For whatever reason you’ve lost your mojo and triathlon no longer gives you goosebumps. While you can never recapture the thrill of the first year or two in the sport, there are steps you can take to remember why you started, and hopefully get back to enjoying training. These tips are very generalised, and depend on why you’ve found yourself out of love with the sport, but should hopefully help you get back into the swing of things.
Find New Training Routes
To start with, exploring the roads in your local area by bike was a real buzz. Whether putting in a big training ride or simply saving money on petrol/public transport, it was a new way to see the world. Fast forward five years and you know every pothole, every corner and every gradient change within 10 miles of your front door. The list of places to explore is dwindling and with it the satisfaction of achieving something new.
To start with, look into some route planning software such as Komoot, Strava or Ride with GPS. These can help you both find new routes uploaded by others, or help you create a new route based on a destination such as a cafe or a piece of coastline. Be careful here though, as some software will try to take you down overgrown bike paths, through muddy forests or a really convoluted, slow route using cycle lanes, so it’s worth checking the route before you blindly set off.
Focus on a Single Sport
If you’ve always been a pure triathlete, you’ve probably missed out on a lot of events. It may be worth looking into cross country running, time trialling or long distance swimming. These events are usually much cheaper than entering a triathlon, and you can train for them alongside the other two disciplines. They may push you out of your comfort zone, but this is a good thing, as being outside your comfort zone was probably one of the things that appealed to you about triathlon in the first place! You may not even need any new equipment, just a sense of adventure.
Mix up Your Multisport
Triathlon is great, but so is duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, swimrun, quadrathlon, off road triathlon and other variations that I’ve no doubt forgotten or have yet to be invented. If you are struggling with a running injury? Have a go at aquabike. Always way behind in the swim? Spend your off season racing duathlon to see how you perform there. Triathlon may still be your ultimate goal, but this is a good way to shake things up a bit. Falling in love with other multisports for the first time will probably help you fall in love with triathlon again.
Just Sign up for a Race
This is a high risk, high reward strategy. You need to put money on the table here, but there’s nothing quite like a race on the calendar to focus the mind and get you out the door, which can be the hardest part of some workouts. Make sure it’s something which is challenging enough to feel you have to train for it, but it’s also achievable within the time you have to train for it. Signing up for an Ironman with three months to go and minimal fitness probably isn’t going to end well.
Treat Yourself to Some New Kit
Let me make this clear, I am NOT suggesting you go out and drop four figures on a new bike to help motivate you. The chances are this motivation will be short lived, and very expensive if it doesn’t work out. Instead, think about buying yourself some new sunglasses, replacing your worn out bib shorts, or getting some new goggles you can actually see out of, things like that. This is unlikely to have a huge effect on its own, but should help make your return to training feel that bit more exciting, and different to last time.
Try a Structured Training Plan
Many clients I have coached have commented on how I have helped them fall back in love with triathlon by delivering flexible, detailed plans. The sense of specificity and the accountability of a coach who will ask questions if the training isn’t done and the knowledge that they’re working towards something special help motivate them. If you burned out in the past, failed to finish your big race or trained randomly with mixed results, structured training can help refocus the mind and get results. If you’re not looking for a coaching relationship, a training plan is an affordable way to bring structure to your training.
Step Away from Structured Training
If you have spent the last four years moving from coach to coach, or training plan to training plan, and you’re just feeling drained, taking some time away from a structured regime may be what you need. This could be for an entire season of self discovery or just for a few weeks, but it can really help you recharge mentally. Once you are back into the swing of training 5-6 days a week, you can if you wish look at returning to a more structured plan.
Join a Club
If you are used to training solo, which definitely has its advantages, it can be a lonely existence. While training in a group may be less effective at getting you race ready for a non drafting event than a solo ride on your race bike, it’s better than no ride, and can bring joy in its own way. Whether it’s the mid ride banter or getting to know other members at a cafe stop, it can be a reminder of why we started riding our bikes in the first place. After the isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns, this is a good way to re-engage with the human side of the sport.
Squad swim training sessions can be a good way for someone to have a look at your technique, while running sessions at a track add a competitive aspect to your intervals. Even if you only join in with the group workouts for the off season and early base period, it can help you build the momentum you need to get back on the triathlon wagon.
Sign up for an Event That Scares You
You’ve already achieved more than you thought possible, but what else could you achieve? Perhaps you could step up to a half or a full Ironman, or if you’ve already done that, perhaps an extreme triathlon, an off road triathlon, or just a tough Ironman course like Nice. If you’re genuinely unsure whether you’ll be able to complete a race or not, this can put the fear into people and encourage them to train with the same urgency as when they signed up for events earlier in their triathlon career, and saw the experience as a huge step into the unknown.
Aim to Qualify for a World Championship Event
This may not be in the reach of everyone within the next 12 months, but aiming to qualify to represent your country at a world championship event, or qualifying for the Ironman/70.3 championships as an individual is an admirable goal you can apply yourself to. While the qualification itself is never guaranteed and depends on who else turns up on the day, it’s a good way to really apply yourself and aim to perform to the best of your ability, rather than simply ‘good enough to get round’. To qualify you will normally need to be one of the top 3 in your age group to finish.
Choosing the right target race is also very important to maximise your chances of success. If you target a big early season race such as Ironman 70.3 Marbella you’ll struggle to make an impression, where if you find a less popular race in late summer your chances of success are much greater. Aquathlon and duathlon are also less competitive, and a good way to snag your first spot on the age group team.
Even if you don’t manage to achieve your goal of qualifying, you’ll probably be in the shape of your life and be able to place very well at some more local races as a result.
Attend Races as a Spectator/Support Crew
I encourage all athletes to attend at least one triathlon they’re not racing at. This may be a local race you’re not targeting, or supporting someone at a bigger race, but watching from the sidelines really helps give you some perspective. Not only can you learn from other athletes by watching what they do well (or not so well), chances are it will give you the itch to compete yourself. When I attended the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in South Africa in the early days of my coaching career, it really helped me fall back in love with triathlon. Not only was there the fact I got to travel out to South Africa, but the buzz of the event, watching athletes prepare, spectating the pro race, attending the expo, it inspired me so much I signed up for a 70.3 myself the next weekend.
Follow Professional Triathletes
Professional triathletes are some of the fittest athletes in the world. In this age of social media we can gain an unparalleled insight into their lives and their training regimes, as well as their lifestyle. Instagram is an especially well used platform by the pros, where you can find plenty of genuinely inspirational photos, videos and advice to help get you down the pool or out on a run. Watching professional athletes race is an acquired taste, especially over the Ironman distance, but is a fantastic way to see just what the pinnacle of the sport looks like, and what the human body can achieve. It may even help you identify the location of your next event!
Consume Triathlon Media
You can find triathlon themed documentaries, magazines, podcasts, books, videos and more to help teach you about the sport and engage with it more fully. This can be time consuming, and you’ll never finish them all, but it can give you ideas for new training sessions, new target races or simply entertain and inspire you. You need to take it all with a pinch of salt (everyone can’t be right), but broadening your horizons and finding new ways to enjoy the sport goes a long way to getting you out the door.
Sort out That Injury
You know the one, that niggle in your knee which stops you running fast, or that tightness in your hip which makes cycling progressively more uncomfortable after you hit the three hour mark. Not only do these injuries affect our ability to train the way we’d like to, they also present us with a big psychological roadblock. You may tell yourself “If I can’t run pain free, why bother with the cycling and swimming?” Suck it up and spend some money on a physio who can help you identify the cause of the injury, then do the exercises required to address the cause of the issue. Having a glass ceiling placed there by an injury which doesn’t allow you to train to the best of your potential causes the best of us to fall out of love with the sport. If you’re based in London, we recommend https://physioonthegreen.com
Are you struggling to fit training in because you feel so run down all the time? Are you working hard but not seeing results? There’s a good chance your issues stem from poor recovery. Most triathletes should aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, with many pros getting closer to 9 with a nap in the afternoon. The best way to achieve this is to simply get to bed earlier, forgoing that last episode of The Next Generation or that glass of wine and heading straight to bed instead. Getting to bed by 10:30PM and up at 6AM to train should be achievable for most, and nets you a decent 7.5 hours of shut eye. Sleep is the only time the body can truly adapt to exercise, and no amount of caffeine will offset the damage done by consistently failing to get enough sleep.
Ensuring you refuel after workouts by eating sufficient amounts of carbohydrate and protein as well as allowing sufficient time between hard sessions are key to allowing your body and mind enough time to recover well. Without sufficient recovery you won’t really get any fitter, just dig yourself a hole which will take months to recover from.
I’m not suggesting a career change here, but coaching people, formally or informally, is a great way to reconnect with the sport. Whether you’re a qualified coach on poolside with a whistle or simply teaching a club mate how to fix a puncture, sharing your knowledge/expertise with newcomers not only helps them out, but gives you a sense of satisfaction that you’re helping the next generation of athletes.
Take a Break From the Sport
Have you been in a constant state of training for several years? Does the sight of your bike fill you with a low level feeling of dread? Do you check what today’s workout is while cowering behind the sofa? Is there a picture of your coach’s face on a dartboard somewhere in your house? The chances are the most productive thing you could do to help you fall back in love with triathlon, is take a break from triathlon. Distance makes the heart grow fonder as they say, and taking a step back from training may help you realise how important it is to you. I recommend athletes take at least one full week away from training at the end of a season, and normally a few more weeks away from proper structured training. Neglecting this can result in burnout and a loss of interest in the sport.
What if None of This Works?
I’ve listed some of the techniques which work for myself and those I’ve coached, but we’re all individuals at the end of the day. Ask yourself why you got into the sport in the first place, and how you can reignite that. If you started the sport for a sense of adventure, think about how you could make your training more dynamic. If you enjoyed using it to push your limits, find a race which will push you further than any event before. Perhaps you started the sport for its social reasons, but moved towards solo training over time, it might be worth reconnecting with other athletes, even if just for your easy workouts.
Sometimes though, no matter how hard you work at it, how much time you invest or money you throw at the problem, you won’t be able to get back in the groove of training. It may be that your priorities lie elsewhere now, you have too many responsibilities in more pressing areas of your life or recent events in your life have rearranged your priorities. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy exercising occasionally or that you can’t return to the sport properly at a later date, but sometimes it’s better to accept that you need to park your triathlon hobby for now and wait for the right time to restart. After all, not training every week for the rest of your life doesn’t make you a failure.
Falling back in love with triathlon is unlikely to be a life changing experience like when you first discovered the sport. It will be more like putting back on a favourite pair of slippers, or rediscovering one of your favourite hangouts as a child. It will motivate you to get outside and make the right choices for your mental/physical health, and help fortify your identity as a triathlete. Even professional athletes lose motivation sometimes, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I hope this has helped you find your triathlon mojo again, if you have any tips that worked for you, leave them in the comments below to help others.
Covid-19 is still a problem in many countries, and will continue to be for many years to come. If you decide to travel outside of your local area for training or racing ensure you respect local restrictions at all times, regardless of your vaccination status, and research entry requirements for different countries if you plan to travel internationally. It is also worth researching the covid-19 refund policies different race organisers may or may not offer.
Billed at the world’s biggest duathlon, The London Duathlon is an annual event in Richmond Park that sees athletes competing over the sprint, standard and ultra distances in Richmond Park, SouthWest London. For the purposes of this article I will be focusing primarily on the standard distance as this is the most popular distance by far. All information in this article is correct as of the time of writing, the course has remained unchanged since the first event (to my knowledge), but the intricacies of how the event is ran may change from year to year with very little notice. Always read all the pre race information to avoid being caught out.
Arriving at the Venue
Richmond Park is completely closed for the event, so despite the fact there are car parks at the venue, they will be inaccessible on the day itself. You will need to find parking on nearby roads if arriving by car which can be challenging. Your best bet would be to take the train to Richmond Station and ride to the park from there. Bikes are permitted on the national rail, overground and district line, all of which are served by Richmond Station. You will want to be arriving at the event village at least an hour before your start time to allow you to prepare in a calm, methodical way. Nobody wants to be faffing around with their bike with minutes until the start of their run.
The London Duathlon event village can be found on the east side of the park, next to Roehampton Gate. It is accessible by a footbridge which you will need to carry your bike up and over. If you struggle with this, there are plenty of individuals present I’m sure will be happy to help. When you enter the event village, take the time to attach your race number to your top, your bike stickers to your bike and attach your wristband. This will be required to remove your bike from transition, so do not remove it until you leave the venue.
Setting up Transition
Your wristband is your ticket into transition, an athletes only area where you will find a number of racks for you to place your bike. The last time I did the event it was a free for all, if this is the case I recommend you place your bike close asp possible to the end of one of the racks, to make it easier to find. You can also place a coloured towel in front of your bike for improved visibility if this helps, but you’re unable to tie a balloon or similar to the rack as an identifier. The run will be the first discipline, so make sure you leave everything associated with the bike leg (sunglasses, nutrition, helmet e.t.c.) with your bike to access it later. Large bags are not permitted, but can be left in the bag drop area.
Once you have your bike left in an appropriate gear ready to go, it’s time to walk the transition area. Find the “run in” banner which indicates where you will enter the transition area following your first run. Walk the route you’ll take to your bike to commit it to memory. Then look for the “bike out” banner, which is where you’ll start the bike leg. Repeat the process for “bike in” and “run out”, there should only be one of each.
The start line
Get to the start line with at least 10 minutes before you’re due to start. You will be placed in a holding area, then called forwards into a small black marquee where a pre recorded race briefing will be played, followed by three beeps which signify the start of the race.
Run 1- 10KM
You will start your run on a short grassy section heading towards Sawyers Hill. Yes the race start with a hill. The adrenaline will be pumping and you’ll be excited for the day ahead of you, but remember, you’ll unlikely to finish any faster than two hours, so don’t get carried away. This event is hard on your legs, and going hard on the first 2.5KM up a hill is a good way to kill your legs for the rest of the race.
Once you reach the top of the hill you’ll take a left onto a slightly undulating section, followed by a notable downhill which will allow you to pick up the your feet again after the long slog of Sawyers. This doesn’t last forever however as you then make a left to cut through the middle of the park on a flat section, passing some large ponds on your left. After the ponds, you’ll then make a left hand turn onto a short out and back section which is there to bring the distance up to a nice round 10KM. Here there has traditionally been a water station for you to replace water lost through sweat, which I recommend you take advantage of unless you are carrying your own water. From here you are treated to a final downhill section before you make a left at Robin Hood Gate roundabout and run the last 2KM to the transition area where you’ll begin the bike.
As you exit transition you will merge onto the bike course. It’s VERY important you give way to other cyclists who may be travelling at speeds in excess of 30MPH, as you really don’t want to have to cause them to swerve, or even crash into you. Once on the course, it’s important you stay left at all times except when overtaking yourself, and always make a check over your shoulder before you make a change in direction, just like you would with a mirror in your car.
You are treated to a nice section of flat to help you find your cycling legs, before you make your way up the steepest hill on the course, Broomfield Hill. As you approach this, make sure you’re in your smallest ring at the front as you’ll need it, and change down gears slowly as the road kicks up to ensure you don’t find yourself pushing unnecessarily hard. You will run out of gears on this hill, as it kicks up to over 12% at its steepest point. The good news is you can see the top of the hill from the bottom which allows you to pace it appropriately, and remember you have to climb it four times, so riding up it as fast as you can to show off is unlikely to set you up for long term success. If you find the going really tough, you can always get off and push, but please don’t weave around to try and reduce the gradient. You can have up to five riders side by side on the steep sections of the hill, so don’t take up more space than you have to.
Once you summit the hill you pass a car park on your left, before a short downhill. Your lungs may be screaming at you, but it is worth pushing a bit here to get maximum speed on the downhill and carry it into the short uphill which follows. From here you follow a long flat section before you approach a right hander into some dense tree cover. Change into your big ring here if you haven’t already as you’re approaching a decent down Dark Hill, a steep, gently sweeping downhill towards the roundabout at Kingston Gate. Don’t leave your braking too late here as you run the risk of locking up your brakes and taking a one way trip into the hay bales at the bottom of the hill. If you are a nervous descender and like to ride the brakes on the way down, ensure you stay to the left as it’s a technical fast section of the course.
After making a right at the bottom you start another long, but gentle hill. To start with your barely notice it, until you reach a short, steep downhill followed by a short, steep uphill which I recommend you try to carry speed into. From here you will see runners on the 10K making a left down the middle of the park. This means you are now sharing the road with runners, so you only have 50% of the road to ride on. This makes it very tight, and you can find the road blocked by slower cyclists passing even slower cyclists, so keep an eye on your speed and be aware of the possibility somebody may swing out in front of you with very little notice. This uphill continues until you pass another car park on your left, which is followed by a short downhill to a roundabout at Richmond Gate where you’ll make a right.
After turning right, you’ll have a very short, gentle uphill until you descend the hill you ran up at the start, you may even see some of the runners suffering up it as you descend past them on your way down. The biggest issue here is that the runners are still taking up one side of the road, and this is a very fast downhill where some riders will hit 40MPH, maybe even more in a few cases, with very little margin for error. This is the most dangerous part of the course, so I recommend you treat it with respect and check twice over your shoulder that there isn’t another cyclist about to overtake you before moving right to pass a slower rider. The steepest section is at the top of the hill, it starts to slowly flatten as you approach a roundabout, before dropping down again taking you back towards the event village. Do a right at the roundabout at the bottom of the hill and you’re more or less back at the event village, now repeat this three more times!
Pacing is very important here, as it’s easy to get carried away, especially on the hills, and find yourself really suffering on the last lap, losing all the time you made up on the early laps. It may only be 44KM, but with 330M of vertical ascent and four 90 degree turns a lap, you may need to think of it as being closer to the equivalent of 50KM. I can push 4 watts per kilo at FTP, but every time I’ve done the race it’s taken me around 1:20 for the bike. That does’t take into account the bike, weather, aerodynamics or how I paced it, but it should give you a rough idea of the challenge that lies ahead of you, especially if you are relatively new to cycling. There has been no nutrition or water on the course when I have done the race, so make sure you take some with you to avoid running out of gas.
Run 2- 5KM
Once you finish your fourth lap you will be very happy to rack your bike and start your second run. The bad news is, your legs will likely feel like lead, and the run starts with a series of uphills. Firstly you will run up the first half of Sawyers Hill, make a left at the roundabout, then make your way up the Ballet School Hill, which is a relatively steep hill taking you up to the water station you visited on the first lap. It’s highly likely that you’ll develop a stitch or have to walk at this point if your fuelling strategy wasn’t spot on. This can be very disappointing, but focus on your own race, and acknowledge that it won’t cost you more than a minute or two.
Once you get to the top of the hill you can grab a drink from the water station and head back down Spankers hill towards Robin Hood Gate, which puts you within touching distance of the finish line. As you get closer the sound of the PA system and the buzz of the event village should push you on to dig that little bit deeper before you make a left hand turn to the finish. You will have finished The London Duathlon!
By this point you should have a medal around your neck and a big smile on your face. There will be water and snacks which I recommend you partake in to refuel and repair your body following your effort. Once the adrenaline has worn off make sure you have something proper to eat that has high protein content, whether this is food you have bought from home or one of the vendors. Once you’re ready it’s time to collect your bike from transition and head home to tell your friends about your achievement and plan your next event.
Buying a road bike is one of the most exciting purchases you’ll ever make. This guide is primarily aimed at those buying their first road bike, but I hope to be able to use my experience in bicycle retail to help all cyclists make more informed choices, and save themselves some cash along the way.
Chances are that until now you’ve been riding around on a mountain or hybrid bike, and are looking for some serious speed gains by upgrading to a road bike. However, it can seem like a complete maze. How much should I spend? What makes bikes more expensive? What’s a groupset? What’s the right size? Should I get a women’s bike? What can I upgrade? Having spent two years working on the shop floor at a highly reputable bike retailer, these are all questions I hope to answer in the course of this article. We’ll assume you’re a triathlete at this stage, but if you are simply looking to get fit or look to take place in road cycling events, then disregard the references to triathlon, the rest of the points will be just as relevant.
What is a road bike?
This may seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth making sure we’re on the same page before we start. A road bike is a lightweight bike designed exclusively for use on the road, traditionally with narrow tyres and dropped handlebars. It is not a:
Normally identifiable by the flat rather than dropped handlebars, these have wider tyres with more tread in them to handle minor off road sections more easily such as bridleways and towpaths.
You don’t want one because: It is much heavier, and you’ll be slower due to the drag created by wider handlebars. A few manufacturers make high end hybrid bikes, but most are cheap with components that will break/wear quickly, and wheels which will buckle easily. The saddles also tend to be awful.
Very similar, and easily confused with a road bike by newbies, check for the wider, lumpier tyres and greater clearance around the tyres themselves as they get clogged with mud.
You don’t want one because: The geometry is different on a cyclocross bike, with the bottom bracket (where the cranks connect to the frame) being higher, and often further forwards than on a road bike. These are designed for an hour of hard riding, not a long day in the saddle.
Used on velodromes, these often catch the eyes of customers because they are so cheap and light.
You don’t want one because: They have no brakes! Even if you were skilled enough to ride one on the road, they are banned in triathlons as they do not have functional brakes, you slow down instead by slowing your pedalling and pushing against the pedals. They also have no gears, making them very challenging to ride in traffic or on hills, for experienced riders only.
The gravel bike is a recent addition to the bike world, it has a very similar geometry to a road bike but the wheels/tyres of an off road bike. They are setup for comfort, and are very popular in North America where there are large amounts of roads/tracks are gravel.
You don’t want one because: They tend to be slightly heavier and not as responsive as proper road bikes, and the heavier tyres will have a notable effect on your speed. Additionally many only have one chainring which can make life harder for you on steep uphills or downhills. However, if you’re only going to be taking part in short triathlons and don’t plan on spending much time riding on the road, then you could certainly get away with it.
I know it has triathlon in the title, but if you don’t know what a triathlon bike is, you don’t need one. These are bikes designed for pure speed, where your elbows rest on specially designed pads and your arms rest on aluminium/carbon fibre bars, putting your body in a very aerodynamic position, narrowing your body and reducing the amount of drag.
You don’t want one because: You have no access to the brakes when in the aero position and it can feel very twitchy. They’re the Ferrari of the cycling world, so to use one with any confidence you need to have first pushed the limits of cheaper, more accessible machinery.
Now we know we need a road bike, we need to look at what kind of road bike we’re after. There are three different types of road bike, just to confuse matters even more!
Examples: Trek Emonda, Cervelle R series, Specialised Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix
These are the lightest and most responsive road bikes out there, built to be as quick as possible uphill. On hilly or rolling courses these are the bikes pros will be using, where every gram matters to help them get to the top of the hill in first place. These tend to be fairly aggressive bikes, and you may struggle to get comfortable on one if you have limited mobility. For triathletes weight is rarely the primary concern however, so these aren’t bikes I generally tend to steer athletes in the direction of.
Examples: Cervelo C series, Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane
These bikes are perfect for those getting into the sport later in life, or those who are more worried about all day comfort than outright speed. If you’re looking at at Ironman event, a road endurance bike is probably your best bet. Some models include various springs/suspension tricks to soften the ride, but at the expense of stiffness.
Examples: Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Cannondale SystemSix, Cervelo S Series
This subcategory appeared relatively recently, a bike where the tubing and cabling is all designed to be as fast as possible in a straight line. Where performance and endurance bikes normally have rounded tubing, a road aero bike will be comprised of tubes shaped like aerofoils much like the wing of a plane, to allow for extra speed. That being said, you have to be going quite fast to gain any real benefit from this, close to 30KPH, to see the very small improvements. Some of the higher end models come with handlebars which are tapered for additional aero benefit, which can restrict your ability to fit aftermarket aero bars (to retrofit your bike into a cheap triathlon bike), so bear this in mind before you splash your cash.
Finally, we have the contentious matter of women’s bikes. Many women will look only at women’s bikes believing they are the only bikes that will fit them, but the bike industry is slowly turning its back on the idea of a women’s specific range. Your traditional women’s bike will have a slightly shorter top tube as women are perceived to have relatively shorter arms than men… and that’s about it, apart from a different paint job. Specialized (the brand) looked at the bike fit data from thousands of riders who came to them for fits over the years, realising that the majority of women would be perfectly comfortable on a unisex bike, and that those who struggled with the long reach could go for a slightly shorter stem without any major effect on the handling. I know far more women who ride unisex bikes than who ride women’s bikes, so don’t feel you’ll come across as being masculine or be uncomfortable on a unisex bike, the items you need to worry about gender specificity for are saddles and clothing.
How much should I spend?
This question comes down to your individual budget, but I can provide you an outline of what you can expect for your money when looking at new, fully priced road bikes.
These are entry level road bikes. I bought a Specialized Allez for £500 as my first bike, and overtook hundreds of people on fully specced triathlon bikes over the years I had it. They’re not as light as others, and won’t have the fanciest groupset, but they’re still perfectly lethal in the right hands. You’ll probably find yourself looking to upgrade components on this kind of bike within a year or two from a mixture of performance concerns and wear, leaving you with a bike you’ve spent several times the cost of the bike upgrading, so bear this in mind.
This is about as much as anyone needs to spend on a road bike, you don’t get a whole lot more for your money beyond this price point. Compared to entry level bikes, you get lighter, more responsive groupsets, stronger wheels, a lighter, stiffer frame and often a few little extras depending on brand, such as an integrated hydration system or special forks that reduce vibration.
These are high end road bikes, once you’re spending over £2000 the diminishing returns start ramping up considerably. You can get high end groupsets, nicer wheels and very lightweight frames, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences unless the salesperson pointed them out. These bikes can also be tricky to maintain due to their design, so aren’t really suitable for the novice bike mechanic.
So, if we assume for a moment that the money isn’t a problem, how much should you spend on your first road bike? On the one hand you could accept that you’re probably going to crash/drop the bike a few times in the first year, you could opt for a cheaper bike to play with so that when you upgrade to a nicer bike in the future you’ll have got all the rookie mistakes out of the way. On the other hand, you may get frustrated with a cheaper bike, realise that to upgrade the groupset costs almost as much as a new bike, and figure you may as well pay the extra £200 at the bike shop for the next groupset up (I’ll explain groupsets soon, I promise). It really is up to you, but the next section on where you money actually goes should help.
Where does your money go?
It’s not just weight that you save when you upgrade, everything about a top end bike is different to a cheaper bike, let’s look at some examples:
There are four main materials used to build bicycle frames, each with their own pros and cons.
“Steel is real” the purists claim, and they’re right. No other bike frame can be repaired with a blowtorch. The versatility of the material makes it very popular with custom frame builders, who can build you a frame bespoke to your measurements. The properties of the material also means it will provide a dampening effect, ironing out some smaller bumps in the road for you, but very few new bikes are made of high quality lightweight steel, and are instead made of heavy, thick tubes which give the material a bad name. One for the connoisseurs more than your garden variety cyclist, but not to be written off either.
Pros: Malleable, comfortable ride, cheap
Cons: Difficult to find a high quality option
This is the most popular material for bikes under the £1000 mark, but is often given a bad name by those who believe carbon is the only way to go. I have always ridden aluminium road bikes, and while I can tell a difference when I throw my leg over my carbon TT frame, it’s far from the heavy and bone shaking riding experience some would have you believe. Aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre, which can be prone to fracturing if it’s hit in the wrong way at the wrong angle, making it the material of choice for many criterium racers where they’ll be looking for a cheaper, more durable frame to throw around corners elbow to elbow with other riders. Cannondale have made a great success of aluminium with their CAAD range, affordable, speedy bikes that look great and handle well.
Pros: Light, responsive, durable
Cons: Slightly harsher ride
“You need to get yourself a carbon bike, it’s what Tour de France riders use” is the advice given to many aspiring road cyclists. Carbon fibre sounds sexy, it’s somewhat mysterious, has connotations with F1 and will feel light as a feather compared to the chopper they used to ride around the local park in their childhood. Many road cyclists will only have ever ridden a carbon fibre bike so the material is accredited with all the benefits that come with upgrading to a road bike. The truth of the matter is that not all carbon fibre is made equal, and a cheap carbon fibre frame is less desirable than a nicely made aluminium frame. That being said, it is probably the ideal material to make bikes out of, providing stiffness while also dampening road vibrations. When you ride a carbon fibre bike it just feels different, it wants to be ridden fast. I made a comment earlier about carbon fibre being more fragile than aluminium, but that’s not to suggest these bikes are made out of sugar glass and should be handled with extreme care, these are durable and well made pieces of kit designed to take knocks from potholes and survive a minor crash. The issues come when you stress the material in an unusual way – bikes are designed to take a lot of punishment vertically. But, I once watched someone’s frame become unrideable after being blown over and landing on its side, hitting the ground horizontally in a way that cracked the material. Even if you are unlucky enough to find a fracture when inspecting your bike, repairing it isn’t as expensive as you may think.
Pros: Light, stiff, yet smooth ride
Cons: Expensive, not as durable as other materials
Arguably the highest quality material out there, this is the one material I have zero experience of riding, as I’ve never met anyone with a titanium frame brave enough to let me ride it! The material is a lot like steel in that it can be used to make very custom frames, making it the material of choice for some boutique brands. The material is very difficult to work with due to the temperatures and environment it is malleable in, but I understand it gives a “unique” ride quality that’s very smooth. It won’t jump out of the blocks like a carbon frame will, but it’s no slouch either.
A groupset refers to all parts of your drivetrain, this is typically the gear shifters, the front and rear mechs, chainrings, cranks, bottom bracket, cassette and brake callipers. The combination of these parts saves a huge amount of weight and also had an effect on how smoothly your bike shifts, how responsive the brakes are e.t.c.
As I alluded to earlier, upgrading your groupset is very expensive, so it’s worth spending a bit more to get the one you want when purchasing the bike. But what’s a good groupset? Here are the most popular Shimano groupsets. I have nothing against SRAM or Campagnolo, but replacement parts can be tricky to find in a pinch and very few bikes are sold with these groupsets as standard.
Found primarily on budget bikes such as those found in Halfords, it’s very basic and the components don’t last long, probably best avoided if you can afford to. It has eight gears which can make it difficult to find the right gear compared to more expensive groupsets.
This is a nine speed groupset aimed at newer cyclists, it can feel a bit clunky and it’s fairly heavy, but does the job reliably.
Now we’re looking at a ten speed groupset, this gives us more flexibility and the gear changes are just that much nicer, to the point that you’d probably notice if you rode both groupsets blindfolded. Please don’t ride bikes blindfolded.
In my humble opinion this is all anyone really needs. It’s light, very responsive and now 11 speed as standard. I don’t buy bikes which have anything less than 105 on them, and I only run Ultegra on my triathlon bike as that was the only option when I bought it. Shimano 105 is an incredible groupset and does everything you could reasonably ask for from a mechanical setup, anything else will make minimal difference.
The only real difference between Ultegra and 105 is the materials used, which means the Shimano Ultegra R8000 is 191g lighter than the Shimano 105 R7000. As the price difference for the new groupsets is the best part of £500, you have to ask yourself how much 200g really matters to you. It does have the option of smaller shifters which could be appealing for those with smaller hands, and it also comes in a Di2 (electronic) format which has some benefits I’ll go into shortly.
This is the kingpin of the groupsets, the absolute top end, have it all version used by professional racers, using the latest technology available. It is significantly more expensive than Ultegra, and offers very little in the way of tangible benefit, providing more of a conversation point than any performance gains. Technology from Dura-Ace tends to trickle down over the years, and as such the current Sora will probably perform better than the Dura-Ace of the mid 90s. For a first road bike, this is probably overkill, if only for the cost of replacing parts that become worn/damaged.
One thing to watch out for is brands adorning their bike with an Ultegra rear mech and Chainset (where the branding is most visible) but using 105 shifters, cassette, front mech e.t.c. as this is a good way to lure customers in. This won’t make much of a difference to your riding, but there will be a sense of being deceived when you find out. A good question to ask is “Does it have full Ultegra?”.
Riding a Dura-Ace and Claris bike back to back you’ll notice a difference, and this is one of the primary reasons you’d want to spend more on a bike, however it’s important to note that no matter how lightweight or responsive a groupset is, it won’t ride up the hills for you. If someone tries to tell you that you’d be able to keep up on the hills if you bought Dura-Ace, they’ve probably got shares in Shimano.
With regards to electronic shifting, this opens up a world of possibilities for us. Electronic shifting uses buttons rather than levers for changing gear, meaning less strength is required to change chainrings (you can laugh now, but after ten hours in the saddle these things matter), as well as requiring much less in the way of maintenance. Rather than having to index gears on a regular basis as the mech gets knocked or the cable stretches over time, you simply fit and forget, making sure to recharge the battery. SRAM Etap allows you to place shifters anywhere on the bike using its wireless system, and the new Dura-Ace allows you to shift all the way through your gears only using the right hand shifter, changing chainring for you automatically. The batteries and junction box can add some extra weight but this is offset somewhat by the loss of gear cables, and I’d go for electronic shifting over mechanical in nearly every scenario. However for your first road bike, it’s probably overkill.
There are currently two braking standards available for road bikes, disc brakes and calliper brakes. I would recommend disc brakes if you are just starting cycling as this is the way the industry is moving and they perform much better in the wet. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve already covered the points in this article: Should you run disc brakes? They do raise the price slightly, but I believe it’s a price worth paying.
It’s not very common for manufacturers to throw in upgraded wheels on bikes, normally they’re pretty cheap and nasty, as wheels are so expensive they bump the price up massively. However once you get to the £2500+ mark bikes may come with some higher end wheels as standard, which help save weight, improve acceleration and last longer thanks to higher quality bearings and a stronger build quality. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of wheels, but if you can’t see why one bike is a lot more than another with similar specs, check the wheels, these are very expensive to upgrade further down the line.
This is often overlooked in the second hand bike market, the peace of mind that comes with having a warranty. Generally components are covered for a few years, with most manufacturers offering a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that not only can you ride around safe in the knowledge that financially you’ll be covered if you have an accident, but the bikes are manufactured to a standard where they feel confident that it will not fail on you.
Big brands such as Specialized will provide bikes for multiple teams in the World Tour, have a wide ranging print and web advertising strategy, hold events, run competitions and do everything they can to sell more bikes. The money for this has to come from somewhere, so you can be pretty certain that a portion of any Specialized bike you guy goes towards covering the cost of the Tarmac that Peter Sagan totalled in a group sprint.
Research and Development
As I alluded to when talking about Dura-Ace, when you buy a top of the range product, you’re paying for the R+D that went into the technology involved, not just the materials and manufacturing costs. This is where diminishing returns really kicks in, the more expensive the bike, the larger proportion of the cost went into research and development, for what will likely be a marginal benefit.
To conclude the section on pricing, I don’t believe there’s much point spending over £1500 on a road bike, especially your first. You are of course welcome to spend as much as you like, but don’t expect a £5000 bike to go five times as fast as a £1000 bike.
Geometry and fit
Far more important than brand, price, wheelset, groupset or colour is whether you are comfortable on the bike. Let’s look at some basic concepts.
This is the difference between the saddle height and height of the bars. The higher the drop the more of an aggressive, aerodynamic position you’ll find yourself in, but at the cost of comfort. Drop can be decreased by lowering the saddle or adding spacers to the headset, but most road bikes will have at least 2CM of drop, as otherwise you’ll be sitting bolt upright. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have back pain or are incredibly nervous, but you’ll get much more out of your cycling if you start to increase the drop. Drop can be increased by raising the saddle or removing spacers on the headset, but I recommend you try this slowly rather than jumping from 2CM right up to 10CM, anything in double digits is extremely aggressive and unlikely to be comfortable for longer rides. The drop is very flexible and should not usually determine which bike you buy, but it’s worth checking how many spacers are available at the front of the bike, as you may not be able to get the handlebars as high as you like on some of the more aggressive models out there.
The reach quite simply represents how long the bike is, measured from the saddle to the stem by bike fitters, however bike manufacturers tend to measure from an imaginary line extending up from the bottom bracket across to the headset. As you would expect, more aggressive bikes have a longer reach, with more relaxed bikes having a shorter reach which doesn’t require as much flexibility to maintain. Reach can be increased or shortened by swapping out the stem, however this will also have effect on the handling, which may be unwanted. Having a longer stem may make it feel like you’re riding a boat, where a short stem can result in some unwanted oversteer.
The stack height is measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the tube which sits between your legs. A stack height which is too low will make it a very ungainly experience riding the bike while a stack height which is too high will make it incredibly difficult to get an effective, comfortable saddle height as well as making mounting/dismounting an extreme sport. You should expect to lean the bike slightly to the side to mount/dismount for an effective road riding position, only bringing it completely upright when you push off and mount the saddle.
This is simply the length of a bike, but has a noticeable effect on handling. A bike with a longer wheelbase will feel more stable but sloppier in the corners, while a bike with a short wheelbase will feel like it’s on rails in the corners, at the tradeoff of feeling twitchier. Endurance and TT bikes will normally have longer wheelbases for stability, with performance bikes being slightly shorter making them better suited to twisting switchbacks or a criterium circuit. The differences can be very small here, so don’t expect to be able to spot them with the naked eye.
Shape of saddle
Moving away from the bike itself slightly here, the type of saddle you’re running is second in importance only to the saddle height when it comes to your comfort on the bike. We all have soft tissue down there which doesn’t like to be squished, and we all have sit bones which are different widths and shapes, choosing the right saddle is essential for all day comfort on the bike, and I’m 95% sure that the saddle that comes with your bike will be wrong for you. Look for a saddle with a cutout in the middle (very few individuals suit saddles without) which offers a 30 day exchange programme, where you can try the saddle for 30 days and exchange it for another from the same manufacturer if it’s not working for you. Unfortunately a saddle can feel great when you try it at the shop, only to leave you in agony after two hours of riding. Please don’t be tempted by the big, cushioned saddles, they may be comfortable for nipping down the shops, but they will be uncomfortable on longer rides for the same reason you’ll start shifting around if sat in a big, soft chair for too long. More minimal saddles are more comfortable for long rides for the same reason you can spend all night perched on a bar stool with minimal discomfort. The best way to find the right saddle for you is to have a bike fit.
The fore/aft of the saddle represents how far the saddle is behind or in front of the bottom bracket. Getting this nailed in can be notoriously difficult, but those planning to use clip on aero bars will probably need to move their saddle slightly forwards to accommodate for the more forward position.
This is easily solved with an Allen key and a spirit level so isn’t a factor when looking at bikes, but it’s something that can ruin cycling for many if they hit a pothole and don’t realise their saddle has slipped forward slightly. Saddles should by and large be completely level, there are only a handful of situations where a couple of degrees of tilt back or forth may prove to be advantageous, but this is for a bike fitter to recommend on. If you’re suffering with saddle discomfort, whip out a spirit level and make sure it’s dead level.
How wide your handlebars are will have an effect on both your comfort and the handling of the bike. As you can probably guess, narrower bars will result in a twitchier ride, but keeping your shoulders narrow also provide you with a slight aerodynamic benefit. Wider handlebars will provide you with more stability, but at the cost of some top end speed. What’s more important than aerodynamics or handling is comfort, as you want to avoid any back or shoulder pain from riding bars that are too narrow or wide. Rather than requiring a different bike, this is simply a case of swapping out handlebars, but it’s worth looking into this when you purchase your bike as you may be able to sweet talk the bike shop into swapping the handlebars out for you if it secures them a sale.
Riding on the drops can be intimidating for many, lowering your body position even further. The reason many riders find it difficult to ride the drops is that they don’t have the right handlebars, and can’t reach the gears or brakes. You may need help from your bike shop or bike fitter to get the right bars for you, but either way you’ll probably have to look at different manufacturers to find a shape that works for you. It may upset some riders to have a pair of Pro handlebars on their Specialized bike, but comfort and fit really are king, and these things are best sorted out when purchasing the bike and you can sell on the original bars as new.
Nothing will affect your riding enjoyment as much as your saddle height. Too high and your hips will rock from side as you strive for each pedal stroke, feeling unsteady and out of control; while a saddle height which is too low will restrict your ability to put out power and risk knee injury. Even a couple of millimetres can make a difference over long distances. Forget any methods you dad may have taught you about having one foot on the floor, you want to set your saddle height so your knees are just short of locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The best way to get your saddle height spot on is to, you guessed it, get a bike fit. If you live in the London area, we can provide you with a bike fit and advise on the best bike for you to buy, details here.
You can use these measurements to compare your current bike (if applicable) to the bike you’re looking at purchasing. If your current bike has a stack height of 45CM which you find a real struggle to throw your leg over, then you’ll be looking at a size where this is lower. Some websites will ask for your height and inseam measurement (from the floor up to your privates) recommending a size for you based on this, but the best way to find your right size is to throw your leg over the bike itself. Most shops don’t have every bike in every size ready for you to go and try, so if you know there’s a bike you’re dying to get your hands on, phone them up ahead of time, and they’ll build it up for you to come in and try, normally within a few days.
A chap I used to work with tried to pilot a “fit first, but second” movement which seems ludicrous at first, paying for a bike fit before you know which bike you’ll be buying, but where all the charts told me I’d be looking at a 51CM Cervelo P3, he got me on the jig and discovered that while I could fit on a 51, the saddle would be super high, I may have to swap the stem, and it would look pretty ungainly, ordering me a 54CM instead. If you’re looking at spending serious money on a bike, you should consider this as an option.
Apologies if I threw a bit too much bike jargon around there, but these are the biggest factors in bike fit and this is overlooked by many buying their first bike, resulting in discomfort, injury, and just not getting the most out of their cycling.
Choosing the right bike for you
By this point I hope you have a rough idea of what you’re looking to buy, you may decide that you’re going to go for the cheapest frame you can find, or you may be leaning towards an endurance bike, with a 105 groupset and a very relaxed geometry for around the £1500 mark. Alternatively you may be targeting city centre events looking for a top of the range road aero frame with electronic shifting on it where money isn’t a problem. Either way you’re now faced with the question of which bike to order. When visiting a specialist this choice can be overwhelming, should you go for the Cannondale? The Specialised? The Giant? A few factors to consider:
Some cyclists are adamant that all frames are made in the same factory in Taiwan, badged up with different logos and sold as individual bikes. While this is a gross over-exaggeration, the truth is that there isn’t nearly as much difference between brands as you may be lead to think, especially towards the cheaper end of their range. What does make a big difference though is the customer service and after sales support. I don’t want to land myself in hot water here, but while some brands are known for going out of their way to replace damaged components with minimal fuss, other brands are known for dragging customers through a soul destroying warranty process where they have to pay for their bike to be shipped to a factory in Europe, examined at some point in the next six weeks, where they will most likely declare it wasn’t their responsibility and charge you to courier you broken bike back to you.
I would think no less of someone if they told me the reason they went for the Trek Domane rather than the Specialized Roubaix because they preferred the colour. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on your bike (even £500 isn’t chicken feed), you want your bike to sit in your hallway begging to be ridden. Your new steed needs to excite you and going for an ugly colour scheme because the salesperson told you it had slightly stiffer cranks than the bike that really spoke to you doesn’t set you up for several years of two wheeled bliss together. Sometimes the go faster stripes are the only thing that get you out the door on an overcast, damp morning.
If there are two very similar bikes you’re considering, one is full price and one is 20% off, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Your friends may swear by their Canyon, Trek or Binachi, but as we’ve already discussed, the manufacturer of the frame makes very little difference most of the time so as long as the specs are similar, save yourself a bit of cash and go for the discounted bike.
Towards the end of the bike retail year (late summer/autumn) you can get some fantastic deals on bikes, but popular sizes such as 54cm and 56cm may be difficult to get hold of. If you are in love with a bike but it’s got a six week lead time, where a very similar model is making eyes at you from across the showroom floor, you have to ask yourself how much you prefer the other bike, and how much riding you’d miss out on. If you have an event in six months, six weeks is a good chunk of training you’ll miss out on, especially as there’s always a chance they’ll come back and tell you they couldn’t get hold of it after all. These are all factors you have to take into account based on your individual situation.
Budgeting for extras
Many would be cyclists walk into their local bike shop with £1500 of savings and their eye on a new bike they’ve been courting through the window for a few months. They get measured up, pick out their colour, and head to the bike shop for the big day when they ride their dream bike home.
Shop owner: “Which pedals would you like?”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
SO: “The bike doesn’t come with pedals, which would you like?”
C: “What kind of £1500 bike doesn’t come with pedals?”
SO: “Pedals are very individual, so manufacturers don’t ship them with pedals, as most riders will swap them out to their preferred standard”
C: “How individual can pedals be?”
SO: “Well, you have SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Time, Speedplay…”
C: “Yes, I get the picture, which is the cheapest?”
SO: “We have some Shimano SPD pedals for £30”
C: “That’ll do”
SO: “Great, the shoes are over here”
SO: “Yes, the shoes which clip into the pedals”
C: “Clip in?”
SO: Yes, the shoes clip into the pedals so you’re attached to the bike, improves acceleration and efficiency” C: “Blimey, how much are the shoes?”
SO: “Well, they start at £70, shall we try some on?”
This is a familiar conversation for many, and the customer who has stringently saved up (and told their partner) they’d be spending £1500 on a road bike is now going home at least another £100 lighter. Once they’ve picked the shoes, they will be advised to look at other items he’ll have a difficult time without. Let’s look at a full list of items a new cyclist needs to budget for:
This is an essential for any riding except the most leisurely cycle path rider in my opinion, all helmets are made to the same safety standard (with the exclusion of MIPS systems) so don’t need you have to spend a fortune to stay safe. More expensive helmets will be lighter and more ventilated, perhaps more aerodynamic, but you don’t need to spend more than £50 for a comfortable lid. Try a few on until you find one that sits securely.
Of all the different standards I recommend either Shimano SPD-SL or Look as they use the three bolt system found on the majority of cycle shoes. Shimano SPD is cheaper and less obstructive when walking around so may appeal to touring cyclists or off road riders, but it can be hard to find shoes which fit you as the range is a lot more restrictive. Spending more than £50 gets you carbon fibre pedals which get lighter and include better quality bearings, but there are better places to spend your money in all honesty so keep it cheap for now.
Shoes generally start at the £70 mark and need to fit your foot. As in, they REALLY need to fit your foot. A lot of cycling shoes come up very narrow, some very long, so try on lots of brands. They should hug your foot very nicely with a little space in the toe box for the foot to swell in the heat.
The tyres on your new bike are awful. I can say that with relative confidence unless you are spending over £2000 on your bike. High performance tyres provide you with extra puncture protection, reduced rolling resistance and vastly improved grip. Nobody has ever sat at the side of the road grappling with a puncture repair kit in the freezing rain or found themselves in the back of an ambulance with a broken collarbone really smug that they saved £60 on a quality set of tyres. Find more information on the right tyres for you here
Saddle bag and basic tools: £40
You’ll want a saddle bag to sit behind your seat post with enough supplies to get you out of trouble. I recommend a multi tool (including chain tool), spare chain link, spare inner tube, tyre levers, puncture repair patches and mini pump or C02 canisters. Learn how to fix a puncture on YouTube and you’ll be able to head out feeling a lot more self sufficient.
I recommend running a pair of small flashing lights during the day, and if you’ll be cycling in the half light or darkness, a second more powerful pair you can switch on when visibility starts to drop. When I started cycling lights were big and heavy, chewing through a small fortune’s worth of batteries on the way home from my friend’s house, but today they’re light, compact and for the most part USB rechargeable. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to run lights after sunset so don’t get caught out, or even worse end up under the wheels of someone’s car. For now a small set of flashers will do you just fine.
Bottle cage and bottle £20
This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a way to transport water around as cycling is thirsty work. Some riders opt for a rucksack with a camelback which is better than nothing, but the rucksack will leave you sweating heavily and place extra stress on your shoulders.
Cleaning products and lubricants £30
A bicycle that is neglected will rust, seize up, make a racket when riding and eventually break. Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is incredibly important. You’ll need some bike cleaner, degreaser, sponges, brushes and a bottle of lubricant as a minimum.
Cycling shorts and jersey £100
Spending prolonged time on your bike without padded shorts will be… uncomfortable. Even with the shorts it takes time to build up a bit of resilience down there so these are not a purchase you will regret. A jersey is very useful for transporting essentials in the back pockets (food, pump, phone e.t.c.)
Rain cape: £50
It will rain when you’re cycling, whether it’s forecast or not, and having a small packaway waterproof in your pocket will have you covered in these situations.
Arm and leg warmers: £40
Not 80s fashion accessories, these are arm and leg sleeves that keep you warm on chilly mornings or when the sun sets. Cheaper than buying a long sleeved jersey or tights, and more flexible as can be removed when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in properly cold weather you’ll want windproof clothing to keep the wind off your chest and tights for maximum warmth, but as not many people take up cycling in the dead of winter (chapeau if you are!), arm and leg warmers go a long way.
You’ll want some glasses to keep the sun out of your eyes on bright days as well as to protect you from small stones and insects. There are options for persimmon lenses to brighten up an overcast day and clear lenses for night riding, or even photochromic lenses that adjust to conditions.
If we forego the recommended section, we’re looking at £340 for what are pretty essential purchases, and closer to £500 when we include the clothing we need to ride in comfort. This isn’t (normally) a salesperson trying to take you for a ride, they just want to make sure you can really enjoy the sport. If you’re really on a budget or looking to spread the cost you could pick up some flat pedals now and look into the shoes later, but a pair of flat pedals can be £20 in themselves, so if you have the money in your account it’s probably better to do it right first time.
Where to buy the bike
One of the biggest factors to consider is where you buy your bike from. If you head somewhere where cycling isn’t the sole purpose of the business, the salesperson may have gone on a one day course on bike sales if you’re lucky, and their experience of riding bikes may extend to a visit to Center Parks where they pootled around a flat trail on mountain bikes. I really wouldn’t recommend going to one of these shops unless you take a friend who knows exactly what they’re looking for, as you could end up spending a lot of money on something completely unsuitable.
Next on the pecking order is your cycling specific retailer, where they have a broader range of bikes and will go out of their way to order in the right bike in the right size for you, but might also be inclined to sell you a bike in the wrong size to get it off the shop floor. I bought my first bike from one of these, and the sizing process involved an argument between the manager and one of his staff over which size I should take. These outlets are well established enough to offer a reasonable level of advice, but too big to be flexible or guarantee a good level of service across their stores.
Finally you have your specialist retailers, the independent bike shops or very exclusive chains. I really recommend you shop here where possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, many are struggling to make ends meet and these shops provide an important role in our communities. If you need to pick something up quickly, the chances are your local bike shop is closer than the closest retail giant in an industrial estate but they can’t rely on sales of inner tubes and lubricants alone. They’re also great fountains of knowledge as the staff will tend to be experienced passionate cyclists who can help you make the right decisions, although this can come at a premium as they won’t always be as competitive as larger retail outlets having comparatively larger overheads for the volume they sell. However these are also the retailers most likely to swap the stem/handlebars for free, and fix the bike for free or a reduced rate if you take it back to them with an issue. That being said, some local bike shops are run by misogynistic middle aged men who look down on newcomers, or are so inflexible that they probably deserve to go out of business, but the quality local bike shop is an asset to both the sport and the community, deserving of our financial support.
I’m writing this in what I hope is the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is difficult to buy bikes from bricks and mortar establishments currently. Buying online isn’t the sin that some would have you believe it to be, however you run the risk of getting completely the wrong bike, in a colour that looks different in the flesh, which you’re not the right size for at all. If you’re planning to buy a bike online and use a local bike shop as a showroom, please don’t waste the salesperson’s time by playing a game of 99 questions.
I know that’s quite a lot to take in, but I hope it’s given you an insight into just how much thought needs to go into buying the right bike. To conclude, here are the biggest takeaway points:
A good quality aluminium or steel bike is better than a cheap carbon frame
Spending more money won’t make you quantifiably faster
Budget for accessories
Get a bike fit
Buy the bike which speaks to you
Bikes have very different geometries
Make sure you’re buying a road bike
Shop at a store where staff can help you make informed decisions
Remember to buy pedals
Upgrade your tyres
I hope this has helped inform you of the common pitfalls that come with buying a bike. Once you have your bike and your event booked, why not check out our training plans?
As someone once said to me, “Training for a sprint is a hobby, training for an Ironman is a lifestyle”, something many of us can relate to. You likely started out at sprint and Olympic distance where a long ride was three hours and you rarely ran for longer than an hour. However when taking on an Ironman, this just won’t cut it, and your longer workouts tend to dominate the day once you include the preparation, execution, recovery, cleaning/washing and the obligatory nap afterwards.
All of this can take a strain on your relationships, which can leave your other half feeling neglected and overwhelmed with jobs such as looking after kids and food shopping which you can’t help with while you’re out putting in the miles. Training for an event like an Ironman will likely change the dynamic of your relationship, but there are some simple steps you can take to stop it being a change for the worse.
Choose your moment
If you’re moving house, expecting a new arrival, your workplace have announced redundancies or a family member is unwell, you have to ask yourself whether this is really the best time to engage in an expensive and time consuming challenge such as an Ironman. When you get closer to the race you may be out of the house for six hours at a time on your long ride, you may find yourself stressed if things aren’t going to plan and the physical exhaustion you’ll experience towards the end of the hard weeks can make the best of us come across as a bit short tempered and surly. The Ironman distance isn’t going anywhere, so don’t feel you have to cram it into an already stressful period in your life.
Make time for them
If you love someone the greatest gift you can give them is your presence, just to be around, even if it’s just sitting on the sofa watching a film together. Ironman training will reduce the time you can spend together, and your other half may take this personally if they believe you are growing tired or bored of their company. Even if you’re not able to spend as much time together as previously, making an effort to put time aside for them, and following up on this goes a long way. If you can’t spend an evening sat on the sofa browsing Netflix for five hours together, take them out to dinner for a couple of hours to make them feel special.
Involve them in the process
If your partner is less than keen on your Ironman habit the best way you can turn it around is to involve them so they feel some ownership over the process. This doesn’t mean forcing them to train with you, but it can be something as simple as asking them to hold you accountable to your training plan, asking them which event you should enter or combining your training/racing with a family holiday. If your partner is a stickler for organisation, sharing your precise schedule with them, or inputting the times you plan to train into a shared calendar can help ease any anxieties about you disappearing at short notice.
Keep the sex life going
If you’ve already spent six hours sweating away on the bike in the morning, the thought of spending more time getting sweaty between the sheets can be less than appealing, especially for male athletes as prolonged aerobic exercise decreases levels of testosterone. While every couple has their own preferences on how regularly fornication should occur, it’s important not to let this slide too much when you start training. Your intimate sessions may be shorter than normal and you may have to adapt if you’re feeling truly exhausted, but leaving your partner to their own devices for several weeks or even months because you deem your training to be more important is unlikely to go down well.
Your training may mean the world to you at this point in time, but the saying goes that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If you duck out of seeing your in laws for the sake of a big swim session or refuse to spend time with your sick children because you’re afraid you’ll catch a bug that will stop you training this can add up over time. No single session in your training plan will make or break your race, but the anxiety and stress of relationship problems that stem from being inflexible and selfish will have a far greater effect on your performance as not only will you struggle to keep a clear mind, those around you may remove their support for your quest and that run down the finishing chute will feel very lonely.
Show them the Strava file from your run, show them the photo you and your friends took together at the top of the climb, maybe let them track you while you ride/run for safety purposes (most devices allow this), and just generally keep them up to date with what you’re doing. This will help ease any anxieties about where you’re spending your time and who you’re spending it with.
Pick up the slack on your rest day
Most athletes should be taking one day completely off a week. If you have a young family you should see this as an opportunity to pull your weight and pick up the slack; looking after your children to allow your partner some time to to socialise, relax or exercise themselves. Even if you don’t have children, this is a good opportunity to clean the bathroom, mow the lawn, do the dishes, fold the laundry, all jobs which you’ve probably let slide in favour of ploughing up and down the pool. This gives you the double header of a grateful spouse and a clean, organised environment to train and live in.
Look into home training solutions
In this day and age there are several solutions for training indoors; treadmills for running, smart trainers for cycling and endless pools for swimming. While some of these are more affordable than others, something affordable like a turbo trainer not only allows you to work in a very efficient way, it also allows you to be in the house waiting for that parcel, keeping an eye on the kids or allowing you to stay on standby if your other half is in bed feeling unwell. It’s often preferable to train outside, but sometimes this is unrealistic, and it’s better to take your ride/run indoors than to miss a session.
Go easy on the credit card
Yes, triathlon is an expensive sport, there’s no getting around that, but you really don’t need to spend £100 on titanium skewers, £700 on a wetsuit, £10,000 on a bike or £70 on a carbon fibre bottle cage. We all like toys, but there comes a point where you have to put the family budget first. It’s only a hobby at the end of the day and most of the equipment won’t actually make you that much faster. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you’re able to splash some cash, don’t be surprised if your other half wants a new set of golf clubs, a weekend skiing, or for you to finally get round to replacing the dated three piece suite.
If you spent more on your new bike than you said you would, fess up. If you’re going to be out for seven hours then don’t tell them you’ll be back for lunch. If you know you’ll be exhausted after your long run, don’t make plans you know you’ll probably have to cancel when you get home and collapse onto the sofa. Honesty is the cornerstone of any relationship and being flexible with the truth or hiding receipts from them is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Talk problems over
If you can tell there’s a sense of resentment growing at the time/money you’re investing, rather than ignoring it, ask them what you can do to make things work better. This also gives you a chance to explain why you’re disappearing for six hours every Sunday (You need to get your long rides in to boost your aerobic capacity as part of your base training, these rides will become less frequent in the build phase which starts next month). If your partner vocalises concerns about how much you’re spending, explain your rationale behind your decisions and talk them through any more expenses that are due before the big day. By explaining the rationale behind your decisions you can help them understand why you’re making the decisions you are, and that there’s no ulterior motives.
Successful relationships are all about give and take, and while training for an Ironman there’s a good chance you’ll be taking a lot more than you’re giving; making a few adjustments to time management and how you go about your training can help prevent any conflict.
I always take my client’s family life into account when setting training, arranging days off and hard workouts on days that suits them best. If you’re struggling to balance training and family life, head to our apply page to find out how we can help you successfully train for your event while keeping everyone on side.
One of the most intimidating choices facing a new triathlete is choosing a triathlon wetsuit. They’re expensive, confusing, and by the time you get it in the water to see whether it’s comfortable it’s too late to return it. The right wetsuit is paramount to your triathlon swim (assuming the race is wetsuit legal), so I want to make sure you make the right choice, giving you one less thing to worry about when you lineup on the start line.
I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers choose triathlon wetsuits, trying on different brands, different sizes, it can be a real trial to find the right wetsuit so I recommend doing this at a triathlon retailer if possible, to avoid sending wetsuits back and forth to online retailers. That being said, don’t treat the retailer as a fitting service then go and buy online, every retailer I know will price match the online competitors.
I generally recommend against borrowing a friend’s wetsuit for a race, you wouldn’t borrow a friend’s pair of running shoes for a marathon, so why would you borrow a wetsuit? You’ve even got the knowledge that your friend has probably urinated in their wetsuit multiple times to seal the deal. If you’re unsure whether you’ll do a triathlon again (I’m 99% sure you will) then I recommend looking at hiring a wetsuit. The four times Ironman World Champsion Chrissie Wellington borrowed a friend’s wetsuit for one of her early races. When she started swimming the suit was too big and began to flood with water, requiring her to be rescued by a safety vessel. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone…
Some of you may be questioning why you need a wetsuit, there are a number of reasons you’ll find a wetsuit beneficial to your open water swimming:
This is the big one for myself and many other athletes, it’s simply impossible to drown in a wetsuit. Try swimming under water and you’ll see what I mean! If you get yourself into trouble, simply roll into your back to catch your breath and relax. From here you can flag down a safety vessel by waving your arm in the air.
Generally speaking triathletes are not cold water swimmers, this is compounded by the fact that we can be in the water for up to two hours which makes hypothermia a concern. By choosing the right wetsuit, the water actually helps keeps you warm by trapping a layer of cold water against the skin which then warms itself up to body temperature. The thickness of the wetsuit isn’t as important as it is for surfing wetsuits, sailing wetsuits or dry suits because of this, but a thicker wetsuit will keep you ever so slightly warmer, at the expense of flexibility (more on that later). If you really suffer in the cold like I do then consider investing in a wetsuit with heat reflective properties.
Neoprene creates less drag in the water than skin, so putting on a wetsuit improves the distance you travel with each stroke, as the water encounters less resistance. Wetsuit swimming is more hydrodynamic, but this can be offset by the increased resistance in shoulders.
Let’s be honest, the budget you have is a big factor when choosing a triathlon wetsuit. Confusion can stem from the price points though, why are some suits £120 and some suits closer to £700? Here’s what you get for your money:
1. Quality of materials
We’re not simply talking about neoprene here, some suits like the Orca OpenWater suit are a mixture of neoprene and fabric, which does not stretch as well as neoprene and will provide less flexibility. Once you move up to top end suits, most will use different grades of Yamamoto neoprene which range from 39 cell to 41 with cell counts providing more flexibility. The freedom you experience in a top end suit can’t be understated.
2. Thickness of Neoprene
This is somewhat counterintuitive, but the thinner wetsuits are more expensive. The thicker the neoprene the more buoyancy it provides, but the less flexible it is. As a result many top of the range suits will have thin neoprene (sometimes 0.75mm) in the shoulders and 5mm on the legs. This ensures that weaker swimmers get a better body position as it lifts the legs higher. Some suits are thin all over and designed for the total swimmer who does not want the extra buoyancy, such as the Orca Predator or the HUUB 4:4 suits.
It seems trivial, but the quality of lining in a wetsuit can make for a more comfortable swim with less chance of chafing, as well as being easier to remove.
4. Buoyancy Foam
No, I’m not joking, many wetsuit manufacturers have started incorporating foam into the legs of their wetsuits to lift an athlete’s legs up even higher in the water. This can be especially appealing for newer swimmers, or those who struggle to build an efficient leg kick in the water due to stiffness in their ankles or heavy, muscular legs.
5. Heat Retention
Some long distance specific suits such as the Zone 3 Victory D have coatings or panels designed to reflect lost body heat back to the wearer. This can be a real game changer for lightweight athletes such as myself who struggle in low temperatures, either due to body composition or lack of cold water acclimatisation.
6. Marginal Gains
From the breakaway zipper to catch panels and fabric areas on the forearm to help you feel the water better, top end suits will have all sorts of little technological developments in them that will make very little, if any difference to your swim. Triathlon wetsuits have turned into something of an arms race with each manufacturer pouring tens, if not hundreds of thousands into R&D to get the edge on competitors. My advice is not to get caught up in these details and focus instead on the suit that offers the best range of movement.
If you’re new to open water swimming I would actually advise against dropping too much on your first wetsuit, as you’ll no doubt end up putting your fingernail through it a few times, and you don’t know how well you’ll take to the sport. Most people will develop a lifelong love for it, but I’d hate for you to go over budget on a suit that you end up using less than a dozen times. By starting with something at a more sensible price point, when you upgrade further down the line it gives you one suit for training and one for racing.
Finding the Correct Fit
This is the most important bit to get right, the world’s most advanced wetsuit will not help you if it doesn’t fit, and you’ll be left either gasping for breath in a wetsuit that’s too small or slowly sinking in a wetsuit that is too large.
I cannot recommend going to a bricks and mortar triathlon retailer for a wetsuit strongly enough. Not only does it allow you to try numerous suits and brands on, it also allows for you to try different suits on back to back. You don’t want to have to be forced to buy a wetsuit that doesn’t fit because you don’t have time to return it before race day. I’m going to take you through how to put a wetsuit on properly as well as what to look for in a good fit.
To start with remove everything except your swimwear/trisuit and put on a pair of light gloves to avoid damaging the wetsuit. Some use the gloves before every swim, which I find slightly excessive, but it’s definitely worth doing when putting a suit on for the first time.
Unzip the wetsuit and step into it with the zip at the back. It will take a bit of wriggling to get your feet through, this is fine, if your leg goes in too easily it can be a sign that the suit is too big. If you’re having trouble here, try putting your foot in a plastic bag to reduce friction and avoid the possibility of your toenail going through the lovely box-fresh wetsuit.
Now your feet are sticking out of the bottom you need to lift the cuffs so they’re at the bottom of your calf muscle, rather than sitting on your ankle. The reason for this is we want as much flexibility in the shoulders as possible, we do this by moving all the material as far up the body as we reasonably can.
From here we pull the material from our lower body up towards our chest until everything is nice and tight downstairs, we don’t want any gaps between the suit and our skin or any rolls of neoprene
Next up place your arms through each of the sleeves- which will again be a bit of a struggle. Once your hands have made it through the sleeves it’s time to bring more material up from the chest towards the shoulders, without doing this it may be difficult to do the zip up. This follows the theme of moving any slack material up towards the shoulders. Below you can see a before and after of moving the slack from their legs, body and arms towards their shoulders.
Before moving material to shoulders, this swimmer will be heavily restricted in the water
After moving material towards shoulders, this swimmer’s arms hand freely by their side
By now you’ll be looking like an open water swimmer, whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate! Next up is the zip itself. I highly recommend getting someone else to zip you up. There’s less chance of the zip coming off in your hand this way, nobody wants to be stood at the swim start with their zipper on the floor and a cord in their hand.
Next up are a two more tests to ensure that the wetsuit fits, the first is to lift your arm straight above your head. Were you able to move it with very little resistance? Is the neoprene flush with your armpit in this position? If the answer is no, then you need to move more material towards the shoulders, this can be from the arms, chest or legs; grab some and move it towards your chest. You may be worried at this point about the cuffs moving further and further away from your hands/feet, this is not a problem at all and common in taller athletes. What’s far more important is that your arms have freedom of movement and your chest is not compressed.
Those with a stockier build may end up with excess material bunched around the legs and arms. This can be solved with a pair of scissors, cutting the cuff back by an inch or two. Many of you will gasp at horror at the thought of this, how could you take a pair of scissors to your brand new investment? Well, manufacturers have actually accommodated for this. Along the seam on the inside of the arm/leg cuffs of all wetsuits I’ve seen, you’ll find a piece of black tape running over the seam. You can cut the suit short up to this piece of tape without invalidating the warranty of the suit in most cases. It may be worth checking with the manufacturer before you do this just in case they have a different policy.
Assuming the arms are correct the next thing you want to check for is the small of the back, get somebody to see if they can grab a handful of neoprene, if they can the suit may be too large for you. Finally bend over at 90 degrees and get someone to check if an opening appears at the nape of your neck. If you have a large opening at the nape of your neck and a large space in the small of your back the chances are water will gush down from here and start filling your suit with large amounts of water, not ideal as it prevents the water inside the suit from warming up to body temperature.
As you will have noticed, this list is quite extensive, with lots of caveats and to make things even more difficult, you only truly know if a wetsuit fits you when you take it for its first swim. The chances are there will be a compromise in some aspect of the fit. I have a space in the small of my back due to the curvature of my spine despite wearing the smallest size available. Some people’s suits will have a neckline slightly higher than they’d like, others will find the ankles so tight it’s a fight to get it off every time. Do not feel that you have to tick every single box, as a wetsuit may not exist that works perfectly for you. As long as you have freedom of movement in your upper body, this is the single most important thing.
You can help yourself out here by picking the right brand for you as they all have a slightly different fit. Please note that the following is incredibly general, based purely on my opinion/experiences and about as unscientific as it gets, but it may help you save yourself going back and forth with different wetsuits. I’ll break it down brand by brand with the kind of swimmers the suits tend to suit. Listed in alphabetical order to avoid giving any brand preference.
BlueSeventy- These suit taller, slimmer swimmers as they have a higher neckline which tends to press into the Adam’s apple on shorter swimmers. The Helix is an incredibly popular suit.
Huub- A more generous fit than other suits, a popular choice with swimmers who come from a less athletic background. Large amounts of buoyancy in the legs of most of their models help those with sink legs. Many women find the fit of their suits better suited to the female figure than other manufacturers.
Orca- Popular with pool swimmers who tend to be blessed with broad shoulders, they also have the lowest neckline of any suit I’ve worn, I sold a lot of these suits to those who just couldn’t get on with other manufacturers.
Zone3- These suits are the closest I have ever found to an all round fit, if someone walked through the door with a general athletic figure I would normally steer them in the direction of the Zone 3 suits. The Aspire is probably the most popular triathlon wetsuit out there.
2XU- I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this brand, but you can’t do a shakedown of wetsuit manufacturers without including 2XU. These suits tend to fit taller, more athletic figures than other brands.
Zoot- I have not found their wetsuits to fit many people especially well, with the majority of people who tried the suits on encountering chafing under the arms. This was a couple of years ago now, so these issues may have since been addressed.
This is a list of the big players in the swimming wetsuit market, but that’s not to say they’re the only manufacturers. There are brands such as Sailfish, Roka and DHB, who whilst not quite as prevalent as the others in the UK, does not mean they are necessarily inferior suits. I personally have very little knowledge or experience of these suits so have decided not to cover them here as I don’t know enough about them, but they’re certainly worth checking out if you have the ability to try them on. Brands such as Gul, RipCurl and O’neil should be avoided however as they are surfing wetsuits and this means that not only will they come with a huge amount of restriction in the shoulders, they may well have panels of over 5mm which is against the regulations of every race series/governing body I have come across.
To conclude, here are some final bullet points:
It’s all about the fit, it’s better to have a cheaper, well fitting suit than a top end suit that chokes you or chafes.
Try to visit a triathlon retailer if you can. If you have to buy online it’s best to order a small selection of suits and return the ones that don’t fit.
Always take great care when trying on suits, if you put a hole through it while trying it on, the decision on which suit you’re buying will be made for you.
Go for the the snuggest fit you can that doesn’t restrict movement or breathing. Remember it will relax slightly in the water.
Always get someone else to zip you up, as I said earlier you don’t want the zipper to break off in your hand on race morning! Don’t be put off suits that require someone to help you zip up, as you should never be swimming in open water alone anyway.
Try on different brands, don’t just settle for the first one the salesperson brings out. I always used to allow 30 minutes for a wetsuit sale.
Don’t be temped by an ill fitting bargain, even if you’re only planning to use it once, you can always sell it onto someone else.
Choosing a triathlon wetsuit is a minefield but I hope this puts you in a well informed position to find the best wetsuit for you. If you are based in the home counties and anxious about your first open water swim, check out our coached sessions.
A good triathlon coach is far more than someone who tells you what to do, it is someone who shares with your journey with you. While every coach is different, I’m going to take the time to talk through what I believe makes a good coach, and the relationships I foster with my athletes.
Starting with the most obvious one here, when I tell people I’m a triathlon coach their mind normally jumps to an image of me stood at the side of a pool with a stopwatch or cheering on runners as they sprint round a running track. This is a small but nonetheless important aspect of the coaching I provide, using my expert eye and knowledge of swim, bike and run to provide feedback on an athlete’s form, providing encouragement to help them push themselves hard.
If you are new to triathlon the chances are that you struggle with the swim, whether this is frustration at not being able to get your times where you want them to be or breaking out in a cold sweat at the very thought of open water swimming. This is where many people find the most value in 1to1 coaching, whether it is a coach stood on poolside providing feedback on your technique or someone to help squeeze you into your wetsuit and be there as you take your first step into the water, expert instruction from a coach can help you improve rapidly and ease anxieties.
Flexible Training Pans
There are hundreds of Training Plans available for free or for much less than the cost of a coach, but the value of working with a coach comes from working with someone who understands your lifestyle, strengths, weaknesses, available time, history of injury, equipment available and much more. After filling out a questionnaire and from ongoing conversations a coach will help create a training plan that suits you, and adjust it on the fly for you.
Yesterday one of my athletes contacted me with some bad news from his GP, that he had picked up an eye infection and was unable to swim for a week. Within 10 minutes I had updated his training plan to replace his swim sessions, talked to him about how we can prevent it happening in future and reassured him that the effect on his fitness would be minimal. If he was following a standard training plan he may replace the swims with inappropriate sessions or even worse push through the eye infection for fear of what might happen if he misses a session.
I always deliver training plans on a week by week basis, writing them late in the week so I can get a picture of how the preceding week of training has gone. If their pool was closed for refurbishment I know we have to prioritise swimming in the following week, if they have picked up a cold I know they need to take it easy, or if they have received guidance from a physiotherapist I need to implement this into the next week of training. A training plan should be organic and ever changing to take into account the fact that no-one has the perfect run up to an event, and that sometimes life gets in the way.
Someone to turn to
While very few triathlon coaches will hold any kind of qualification in psychology, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone to athletes in floods of tears or who are on the verge of giving up. Whether this is because they have crashed their bike days before an important event, are suffering from stress in their family/professional life or they are simply having a crisis of confidence, coaches can help pick you up, brush you down and set you back on track.
A lot of emotion flies around athletes training for triathlons, the ecstasy of finishing your event, the frustration of injury, the relief at qualifying for your target race, the self doubt that even the world’s greatest athletes suffer with, your training can become a rollercoaster of emotion. When things start to add up and become a bit too much, having a coach you feel comfortable venting to and who provides a shoulder to cry on helps you process these emotions and prevents you from allowing them to cloud your judgement when making important decisions.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable that your judgement becomes distorted, triathletes are extremely driven people who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. This determination is admirable and one of the qualities I look for in potential clients, but this can also create tunnel vision. Our family, our health and even our sense of reason can fall by the wayside as an athlete gets up at 4AM even though they’re suffering with the early stages of a chest infection to start pounding the pavement for fear of missing a session and losing fitness.
No doubt their friends and family would be alarmed at this and ask them to back off, but knowing athletes as I do, these concerns would likely be batted away with phrases along the lines of “You don’t understand” or “I’m not sure you realise how much this means to me”. This is the point where a coach can step forward as the voice of reason and tell the athlete what they may not want to hear, that we need to take some time off to allow the chest infection to clear before it gets worse.
The self coached athlete is so focused on his goals and so determined to hit them that sometimes they get it wrong, putting a hard interval session in on only 4 hours sleep then spending the rest of the month laid up losing fitness hand over first as his full blown chest infection prevents him from getting any sessions in. “What an idiot, what was I thinking?” the athlete asks himself with the beauty of hindsight. There are only so many of these mistakes you can afford in a season, and the coach’s ability to remove the majority of the emotion from these decisions can help you avoid these common pitfalls.
This extends beyond training with injury/illness, in the past I have given an athlete a day off on a Sunday simply so he can spend more time with his family or given them an unscheduled easy week because I can see things are starting to take their toll on them.
As athletes we don’t necessarily need to understand the finer points of critical power or be able to analyse the duty factor of a run; if you have a data savvy coach they can take care of all of this for you and feed back any adverse findings to you.
Data can be confusing for many who simply don’t have the time or inclination to learn about the definitions of every data point and analyse them after each workout, a coach helps you sort the wheat from the chaff, condensing a confusing and complicated set of numbers into a simple question along the lines of “I noticed your heart rate was a lot higher in the second half of this, can you think of any reason why this might be?”. Using questioning and referring to the data can help me differentiate between a data anomaly and something physiologically which may be a cause for concern and require us to change our approach.
While a good coach can help simplify your training to help you keep your eyes on what matters, I believe they should also spend time developing athletes by explaining to them the logic and reasoning behind their decisions. I can ask an athlete to head out and ride for 2 hours aiming for an IF of 0.7 but to them this may just be an arbitrary number and mean very little to them, If I explain to them that Intensity Factor is a measure of how intense the workout is calculated using their threshold, they can then understand that holding an IF of 0.7 means averaging 70% of FTP and they will hopefully find themselves motivated by this, understanding what is required to hit that number.
Different athletes will have different needs here, for some of them it will be showing them how to change a puncture, put on their wetsuit or lay out their transition area, where for others it’s a case of helping them analyse their own power files, choose the right aero helmet or talking through muscle physiology. I wouldn’t be the first coach to joke that a big part of our job is to make ourselves redundant.
Technical Support If your Garmin isn’t picking up your sensor, you can’t get your avatar to move on Zwift or you’re unsure how to sync your device to TrainingPeaks, a coach can talk you through the process in a more efficient way than via technical support. Many new clients ask me to come around and setup their turbo for them, something I’m happy to assist with as it makes the training process easier for both of us.
Of course we have our limits, we won’t turn up with a set of jewellery screwdrivers to repair your turbo trainer if it burns out completely, but we can be on the end of the phone to talk you through the common pitfalls to hopefully get you up and running sooner.
Advice on Products
Two years in triathlon retail has helped make this one of my stronger elements, but all coaches will have a basic knowledge of the correct products their athletes should be using. This varies from recommending the best indoor trainer, triathlon watch or aero helmet based on technical data and experiences, but also extends to recommending the best clothing for an athlete based on their build.
Perhaps most importantly, out knowledge of sports science helps us spot products with very little or poor evidence behind them, and we can advise against sinking your hard earned cash into products that will have very little, or negligible benefit to your performance. Everybody needs the right kit to perform well, but dropping £2000 on a pair of wheels that may save you 30 seconds over an Ironman bike split ahead of your first race probably isn’t the best use of your money.
With hundreds of triathlons across the globe, choosing the right race for you can be extremely difficult. There are numerous factors to take into account such as type of swim, course profile, surface of the run course, transport links, entry fees, the list goes on. While many athletes already come to me with a target event in mind, I will advise on appropriate warm up races, and perhaps suggest target events for them in future years.
As coaches we will have raced in the majority of local races, and visited the rest as a spectator. As a result we can provide feedback on tricky sections of the course, the best place to get a pre race meal the night before, the prime viewing spots for your family and other bits of information you won’t find in your race pack.
No matter how motivated you are, no matter what your splits look like or how well your prep is going, we all need a pick me up every now and then. Sometimes this is in the form of a supportive comment on TrainingPeaks, sometimes it’s being there on the sidelines cheering you along as you tear up the course, a coach can pick you up when things are getting tough and keep you going. This can also extend to data driven encouragement, if one of my athletes feels they are not making any progress I can open up WKO and pull up a chart that shows them how far they’ve come, how close we are to our goal or how they’ve improved their efficiency, even if their times or power figures haven’t changed as much as they’d like.
Different things motivate different athletes, and by getting to know you over many months/years a good coach knows what to say at the right moment to keep you going when the times get tough. Self talk is a very important part of sporting psychology, but we all need a pick me up from a figure we respect every now and then.
One of the biggest appeals of coaching for many people is the knowledge of having someone who is reviewing their data and who will pull them up on missed sessions, intervals off target and workouts that miss the objective of the session. The knowledge that someone is going to questions why you missed a workout is often the motivation that people need to head to the pool rather than sit on the sofa.
This is not to say that we will bathe you in a sea of fire, threatening to kick you off the squad if you miss a single session, but we will start asking questions if we see numerous sessions are being skipped, and work with you to figure out out how we can prevent this happening in future.
Most coaches do not hold any medical qualifications but if you are experiencing pain or tightness we are well placed to refer you to the best person to help. Triathlon coaches have a working knowledge of the most common sports injuries and can advise on the best way to manage these before you see a specialist, or whether you need to stop running immediately. Good communication is key here, with the athlete informing the coach of any abnormalities as soon as they appear. Most running injuries can be successfully managed we act quickly, and a coach’s expertise can ensure this happens quickly without aggravating the injury further.
Physiotherapists are normally best placed to advise you on treating the causes of running injuries, as this is what they spend the vast majority of their time correcting, but shoulder injuries in swimming are normally caused by poor technique, which as triathlon coaches we are well placed to correct.
I only take on clients who I believe I can foster some kind of friendship with. While I don’t expect them to invite me to the hospital to meet their newborn child, I want to ensure we have a good working relationship, allowing us to crack a few jokes between us and speak freely without worrying about formalities.
It makes discussing difficult subjects easier, if I know an athlete well I can better discuss with them prickly subjects such as whether their training has affected their periods, changes in mood, bowel functions and other subjects you probably don’t feel comfortable discussing with a relative stranger. Most importantly it makes the journey a more positive and enjoyable experience for both parties.
A recent survey by TrainingPeaks suggested that around 90% of athletes believe they would improve from working with a coach, and 90% of those working with a coach are satisfied with the service they receive, so if you are on the fence about hiring a coach, why not try it for a few months and see where it takes you?
The products that promise to make you faster in triathlon are literally endless, every trade show or press release that comes my way promises free speed for a price. Whether this is in the form of miracle nutrition supplements, super aero bike components, advanced cycle clothing or running specific underwear, they all claim to be great value for money, and promise to solve all of your problems. Having worked in triathlon retail for two years I have helped hundreds of triathletes put together the right package for them and their budget, so I wanted to share with you the advice I have picked up and shared with customers over the years. Obviously I can’t cover every single piece of equipment, but I’ll do my best to cover the most common purchases.
It’s worth mentioning that for each item listed there are cheaper options as well as more expensive options available. Just because something isn’t listed as good value doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, I’m the proud owner of many of the items that I list here as being poor value, however for the new athlete there are a other purchases which should come first and will offer your more bang for your buck.
Probably the single best investment you can make in your fitness, especially if you are working with a coach who can use the data to monitor your fitness closely. The power meter not only records data, but displays it as you ride to help you pace your rides effectively. Heart rate also helps with this but as it’s so easily affected by other factors such as fatigue, illness and stress, power is useful as an absolute measurement of what’s coming out of your legs. The savvy athlete/coach closely monitors the relationship between heart rate and power to track fitness and fatigue.
Heart Rate Monitor
If you can’t afford a power meter then a heart rate monitor is the next best way to monitor your effort levels. A chest strap gives you much more accurate readings than the optical heart rate monitors found on newer triathlon watches, so are recommended for serious training.
High Quality Clothing
Invest in high quality clothing which will keep you warm and comfortable when riding and racing. Cheap clothing is a false economy as it will be uncomfortable resulting in unenjoyable training, chafing and it will likely fall apart quickly.
This covers all bike maintenance tools, chain lubes, grease e.t.c. If you learn to fix your bike yourself this will give you confidence and save you lots of money on workshop labour fees. High quality tools are important if you plan to do a lot of work on your bike, but there is no need to spend money on workshop quality tools if you are occasionally tinkering with your own machine.
There’s no excuse for this one, these will save you lots of time in transition and allow you to get running sooner. Tying laces with cold hands after a chilly ride is near impossible, a problem solved with a £5 pair of elastic laces.
Good Quality Goggles
Swimming isn’t much fun if you can’t see where you’re going, you’re blinded by the sun or your goggles keep taking on water. A good pair of open water goggles can be picked up for cheap and will provide you with a far more enjoyable experience in the water. All goggles have a shelf life, so treat yourself to a new pair ahead of race day.
Dumb Turbo Trainer
Is the weather too cold to conclusive riding? Too windy? Not enough time? Throw your leg over a turbo trainer and get a good quality workout in from the comfort of your garage. The fitness you will gain from getting rides in when you’d otherwise be forced off of the bike results in enormous gains in fitness.
Some people struggle with the concept of paying for coaching as they want to walk away from a transaction with something carbon fibre in their hands. But when you consider a year of coaching with Phazon Triathlon costs less than a rear wheel, the expert guidance and support you will receive from a coach will help shave hours, not minutes off of your finish time.
As covered in a recent article, a good set of tyres will help prevent punctures, provide extra grip and reduce rolling resistance. Because nobody likes to end up in a ditch or standing by the side of the road trying to wrestle a tyre off the rim as other stream past.
Appropriate Running Shoes
A pair of running shoes that fit you well, are comfortable and not too worn are essential to your performance ,by running in ill fitting and/or worn running shoes you vastly increase your risk of injury. You also need to ensure the shoes you wear are suitable for he distances you’re running and the terrain you’ll be running on.
Investing in a modest collection of swim toys (pull buoy, fins, paddles, tempo trainer e.t.c.) will vastly improve your swim if used correctly, shop around and you’ll find some good deals going.
Clip On Aero Bars
Using a set of clip on bars can save you time hand over fist by lowering and narrowing your position on the bike. It’s very difficult to get a comfortable position on a road bike with clip on bars, but the good news is you’ll be able to revert to the hoods if they prove to be too uncomfortable.
If you feel niggles or tightness appear from training, be sure to get them seen to by a professional. Sports masseurs can help you treat the symptoms of the pain and advise on the potential cause, but sometimes it takes a full screening with a physiotherapist is essential to address the cause of the injury.
Ride your bike in more comfort and produce more power. It doesn’t take an awful lot, just a high quality bike fit. The free fittings that shops provide aren’t worth much at all, make sure you visit a bike fitting specialist who uses their experience and knowledge of biomechanics rather than relying on technology
With smartphone apps that record your rides and runs for you, the real benefit of a triathlon watch is for recording swims, talking to ANT+ sensors and keeping an eye on your pace as you run or your metrics as you cycle. If you are following a training plan, a triathlon watch becomes an essential for following workouts.
The ability to lean forwards and take a drink saves you a lot of time and effort, reaching behind your saddle or to your downtube every time you need a drink is feels cumbersome after using one of these. Most come with a mount for a GPS computer as well which solves the tricky issue of attaching computers to aero bars.
Premium Tri Suit (£150)
A more expensive tri suit will provide aerodynamic gains and dry quicker, but these are both luxuries, and for longer events many people will drop the tri suit in favour of sports specific kit anyway. The most important factor is one you feel comfortable in. If the difference between a well fitting or ill fitting suit is £50, then splash the cash. You won’t regret it on race day.
Clip In Pedals
The words that strike fear into the hearts of many, this system allows you to put power down quickly and also increases the power you gain on the upstroke, especially on the hills. They also keep your feet locked into a (hopefully) efficient position reducing the risk of injuries.
High End Bike Shoes
This assumes your existing shoes provide relative comfort. Upgrading into a more lightweight shoe with a stiffer sole will increase performance, especially over longer distances. If your current shoes are ill fitting then a new pair of shoes are very important.
A good aero helmet will save you a lot of energy, sometimes as much as a set of aero race wheels. Spend your time trying on different brands until you find one which fits like a glove and is appropriately ventilated for the conditions you’re racing in. Taking a helmet with no vents to Lanzarote is just asking for trouble.
I’m a big believer in triathlon bikes, the additional comfort they provide and access to gear shifters from the aero bars save you a lot of time, but you could buy a decent car for the same cash. I recommend people get a couple of seasons under their belt on a road bike before they take the leap and upgrade to a TT machine.
I love my smart trainer, but if you already own a basic turbo trainer, you will be paying a lot of money for luxuries such as ERG mode and variable resistance. If you’re buying your first turbo trainer and have the money to spend, absolutely go for a smart trainer, but if you’re already running a dumb trainer, look at items further up the list before you upgrade to a smart trainer.
Deep Section Wheels
Not quite as essential as some people would have you believe, a nice set of wheels will save you a lot of time, but you need to be going quite fast to get the most out of them. If you’re new to triathlon you’ll barely be able to get up to speed to make the most out of them, and the weight penalty may offset the aero benefit. Save these for when your times start to plateau.
High End Wetsuit
Upgrading to a top end wetsuit is a lot of money for not a lot of benefit. It will be more flexible, and *slightly* more hydrodynamic, but simply putting on a more expensive wetsuit won’t help your technique. If you struggle in the swim, that money is better spent on swimming tuition. When you start knocking on the door of the top 20% in the swim, that is the time to start looking at performance wetsuits.
High end components sure look good, and yes they’re marginally lighter but on TT bikes components are the last thing we should be worrying about as once you get to Shimano 105 level, the only tangible benefit beyond this point is weight saving, and bike weight is the last of our concerns for most triathlons. The best time to upgrade your groupset is when your current one wears out, as they’re very expensive to purchase as a standalone item.
Sports Specific Nutrition
Buying specially branded energy gels and energy bars only really provide you with a convenience. An energy bar is nothing you can’t make in the kitchen yourself and many people choose jelly babies over energy gels anyway. If you find that these products really hit the spot for you and you can’t imagine yourself racing without them then by all means stock up, but the costs can add up very quickly.
GPS Bike Computer
GPS head units such as Garmin Edge or Wahoo ELEMNT units are great for cyclists as they provide routes you can follow, display your data clearly as you ride, and can even be used in conjunction with your smart trainer. However this provides very few functions that a high end triathlon watch can’t, so this falls down the list.
You may have noticed a pattern here, items which improve your fitness and comfort are high on the list, where equipment based purely on race day speed lower on the list. Investing in yourself is far more important than investing in your bike. Yes top end bikes are sexy, but at the end of the day it’s what’s in your legs that matter, and the ability to put out big watts far outweighs aero/weight.
Nutrition is the single most complex issue in long course triathlon, and the most subjective from individual to individual. While less of a concern for the sprint and Olympic distances, by the time you look at half Iron and Iron distance events it can be the difference between finishing strong and not making it off of the bike. Many marathon runners talk about “Hitting the wall”, a point in the race where you are suddenly blindsided and unable to walk. In triathlon we normally refer to this as bonking (pipe down at the back), but by the time you reach this stage you’ve already made a mistake by letting your energy reserves become depleted. The bad news is that you can’t simply “push through” the wall, your body is literally empty and will start breaking down muscle fibre in search of energy. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable with the right fuelling strategy.
During any event over 90 minutes you need to take on extra calories to maintain performance, let’s take an Ironman as an example. We normally start around 6:30AM, and most people are on the bike by 8:30AM when your body is already expecting the calories from Breakfast. We need to keep topping up our energy stores throughout the day, and the only way we can do this is by taking on calories in a way that won’t upset our stomach. If we pull over to enjoy a Sunday roast halfway through the bike and then jump back on our trusty steed to put out 200W our stomach will be less than cooperative. We need to find a way to take on calories in a consistent and measured manner that is easy for our digestive system to process.
Fuelling slows us down, that much we can’t deny, and when you’re feeling strong tearing up the bike course, you don’t want to slow down by reaching into your back pocket/bento box to extract and unwrap our fuel source of choice. Our heart says to keep pressing on, but our head tells us to be smart and take on food, guess which one we should listen to?
There are various different ways to take on calories, each with their pros and cons which we’ll look at here:
A sweet semi solid substance that you slurp up, these provide a (nearly) instant injection of energy, breathing life back into tired muscles. If you’re wobbling all over the road and shaking, nothing will get you back in the game quite like an energy gel, it achieves this by containing very simple sugars that are easily absorbed. However as soon as you start to get back in your rhythm you will start to crash again as they quite simply put you on a sugar high, followed by a predictable crash. I wouldn’t want to fuel any event longer than an Olympic triathlon solely on energy gels, something that releases energy in a slower, more sustainable manner is essential for success at middle and long distance.
Pros: Easy to digest, give you an instant boost
Cons: Can be sickly, some require water to wash down, only give a short term pick up
All nutrition manufacturers will have their patented energy bars, these vary from brand to brand but are generally oat based, very dense and energy rich. These are a much more sustainable way of replacing depleted energy stores than energy gels, and are a much more natural way of taking on energy which will appeal to many simply out of principal. The oats will release energy slowly, and the bonding agent is normally sugary, as a result these can still be fairly sweet and are normally very chewy. This is all well and good if you’re rolling along at 70% of FTP chatting to friends, but I’ll never forget the time I came across a 20% gradient in Yorkshire with a mouth full of an apple and blackberry energy bar.
Pros: Sustainable energy release, individually wrapped for easy transportation
Cons: Can be very expensive, difficult to chew, still quite sweet
As time goes by and I see past the marketing that brands push, I have found myself moving towards real food over branded energy products. This is a personal choice as I have very low fat reserves so my nutritional demands are quite unique, but I find myself craving something substantial to line my stomach, items such as pistachio cookies, crisps and ginger cake to keep my stomach from turning itself over and protect against stitches and cramps. This is also the cheapest way to fuel yourself, a batch of homemade flapjacks will cost far less than half a dozen branded energy bars and allows you to control the texture, sweetness and portion size to taste.
Pros: cheap, more satisfying, enormous variety
Cons: Can be difficult to transport, preparation time for homemade food
I use this as an umbrella term to cover various branded products that contain carbohydrate in the form of sugars and electrolytes to replace lost salt. This is a fuel source favoured by many long distance athletes due to its easy consumption and transportation, some (very successful) athletes even manage a diet of nothing but sports drink and energy gels. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse but we’re all individuals and need to find what works for us.
Pros: Very easy to digest, take on fluids and calories at once, less likely to neglect hydration
Cons: Has to be mixed (difficult mid race), slow absorption into bloodstream, easy to take on too many calories.
It’s worth mentioning here the role that course nutrition plays, for most middle and long distance races fuel stations will be provided for athletes to get a drink and something to eat. I encourage my athletes not to rely too heavily on these stations and to be as self sufficient as possible, it’s not unheard of for feed stations to run dry, and the products there may not be to your liking. Aim to be self sufficient, but do your research on the nutrition that will be available at the feed stations, the brand and the products they will be stocking, if this information isn’t available on the race website, E-mail the organiser and ask. If they are only carrying peanut and vanilla Powerbars, then buy some and try them while training, if you find one of them really upsets you, then you know to avoid it on race day. Many races will also provide you with a special needs bag at the halfway point, make use of this and ensure you have enough nutrition in there to comfortably get you to the end of the race, just in case you previously hit a pothole and jettisoned all of your nutrition in the process.
Electrolytes is simply a fancy sounding word for salt, but if they tried to sell salt tablets they’d probably sell an awful lot less. As I alluded to earlier, replacing salt is critical for endurance athletes, especially if you’re a heavy sweater, we work with all of our athletes to create a bespoke hydration plan to improve performance and avoid a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia where the blood becomes so diluted that it starts to affect brain function. Luckily getting your electrolyte balance right is a lot simpler than food, and there are four ways to keep yourself topped up.
Yes, sports drinks again. The vast majority of sports drinks will include electrolytes required for peak performance without having to worry about taking on extra supplements. If unsure, check the ingredients and look for potassium, sodium and/or chloride.
There is such a thing as too many calories (more on that later), so electrolyte tablets in water allows us to keep our levels topped up without excess calories. These will often be mildly flavoured, and are more palatable than sports drinks although personally I find myself craving good old plain water when I hit the 4/5 hour mark in an event.
If you don’t take to the taste of dissolvable electrolytes you can use a small oral tablet at regular intervals instead. These are easy to swallow and tasteless, although easier to forget to take, and can be fiddly to transport, if you lose your stash of tablets you can find yourself in big trouble.
Some athletes simply prefer to take some pretzels with them, providing calories and electrolytes in one tasty combination. The only issue is how you plan to transport them, although salty snacks will be available at most aid stations.
Now we have an idea of how we are going to replace our calories and electrolytes, we need to understand how much to eat and when, there are two main problems people can run into, eating too little, or eating too much.
When you bonk, it’s not something you can push through, it is your body quite simply breaking down like a car spluttering its way to a halt with an empty fuel tank. This can come almost without warning, and is often preceded by a feeling of strength as you throw yourself out of the saddle and hurl yourself up a hill, before your body starts to shake and you start to weave around the road. Once this has happened to you a few times you don’t take any chances out there and always make sure you have a spare gel or bar to fall back on, picking a cornershop flapjack up on your way through the next village when you use your last bar up. You can also find yourself in big trouble if you get lost and have to ride/run longer than you were expecting, nobody ever regretted taking extra food on a ride.
While the effects are less dramatic than under fuelling, taking on too many calories poses a risk in itself. Once you’ve bonked a couple of times you find yourself taking all precautions to try and prevent it happening again, which can present other issues. The primary issue is stomach emptying rates, your digestive system can only work so fast, especially when exercising hard as it’s diverting the vast majority of its energy to the muscles. Think of how long it takes to digest a big Sunday Roast, now imagine trying to digest that while running an Ironman marathon rather than in front of the Antiques Roadshow. If you keep pushing food down your throat when your body is already full it will protest violently, and this is often the cause behind the gastronomical distress that athletes experience during a race. This can result in stitches, stomach cramps, violent bowel movements and/or vomiting, which you want to avoid at all costs.
The easiest way to avoid over fuelling is to ensure your carry some water without any carbohydrate content. A lot of athletes know they have to keep hydrated throughout a race, but if all they have is sports drinks they will start taking on 500ml+ an hour of sugary liquids along with energy gels, bars and real food, a recipe for disaster as the stomach simply can’t keep up with the calories you’re filling it with.
One point I’ve tried to hammer home is that what nutrition is incredibly individual, and you shouldn’t try to copy the nutrition plans of your training partners or favourite pro athletes. There are more factors that affect nutritional needs than I could possibly list without boring you all to death, but it’s important you experiment in your training. Standing at the side of the road draped over your handlebars struggling the find the energy to clip back in is a rite of passage in triathlon, and you have to get it wrong a few times to find out what works for you. It’s important you make these mistakes in training rather than on race day, so play around and find what works for you. Unfortunately the chances are you will experience GI distress to a greater or lesser extent during a long distance triathlon, which leads me onto arguably the most important piece of advice in this entire article.